Timeline and Converging Experiences for Tourism Center Concept

Here I will relate a series of events that defy ordinary experience. The timelines are convoluted, but there are these strange round-about connections that are woven throughout my life experiences.

The story related here is likely one of the most ironical events, about apparent "corrupt", incompetent organizations and individuals taking credit, and receiving accolades, in addition to significant monetary rewards. The story weaves back on itself in the strangest of ways. It even has an amazingly ironical twist back to 1981, and my getting sober, and having my drink of choice be Budweiser. This even ties back to my childhood, and the first time I intentionally bought beer and drank before going to Viesha (for later) in possibly 1975?

Designing the Texas Heritage Trail Program

I began my PhD studies in 1997. I received an Research Assistanceship with Dr. Jim Kimmel who had created the Center for Nature and Heritage Tourism in the Geography Dept. at Southwest Texas State University (the name changed just as we completed our PhDs, to Texas State University at San Marcos)

I had not been long working with Dr. Kimmel when a gentleman named Mario approached us to develop a program to stimulate "heritage tourism". He had previously been involved with a successful regional trail project called the Los Caminos Real along the Texas border.

His request, as I recall, was for a "lean-mean", cost effective program that would provide communities inspiration and technical assistance to stimulate heritage tourism in communities. I was a greenhorn, but Dr. Kimmel had worked on a variety of programs. My experience had come from life experiences, driving charter bus, developing my ecotourism concept while at Iowa State University, and then having about 5 years experience working on innovative projects with the Executive Director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (Andy Sansom). At this point I had not had formal experience developing a "plan", but I had had enough experience as to begin to tackle this.

Dr. Kimmel asked me to take the project on. The THC provided a stipend of $15,000/yr, to support my work. I appreciated this as it increased my pay from $12,000 which was the standard stipend for an RA.  This grant relieved our department of paying my stipend.

I took on the project and began my research into how we might structure and design this "idea". There was absolutely nothing specific. My inquiries took me to research that had been conducted by the University of Minnesota, Tourism Center. They had conducted a national project looking at 254 (if I remember correctly) communities across the nation and elements for success. Out of this comprehensive approach, the chose 4 communities to "showcase"! Interestingly, one of these was a project called The Villages of Van Buren, County, Iowa. I had known about these communities because I had driven a bus tour to Keosauqua in the 1980s.
           (There is an interesting digression to share about how these communities came back into my experience in 2011)

I could tell a lot about the process of developing our ideas, guided by Dr. Kimmel's experience, and also the guiding document produced by the Texas Nature Tourism Task Force (headed by Andy Sansom, appointed by Governor Ann Richards), but the point is to get to the experiences that lead to the Texas Historical Commission receiving $4.3 million for Texas Heritage Trail Program, and then also receiving a national recognition, and the chairman of the commission being appointed Chairman of a national program Preserve America, by then President George Bush, Jr.

My concept, with Jim Kimmel agreed with, was to create a centralized resource center, providing information, technical assistance and outreach functions for heritage tourism development. Since the advent of the Internet (I had taught myself web design and built my first website for the CNHT), I envisioned a very efficient, cost effective program. I do not have those documents, but I suppose they may be archived at the THC.

After our submission of our ideas, some tumult occurred. Mario ended up leaving the agency. And, the Chairman (who I remember as a real dolt) took over the project. We were then directed, with no additional funding, to adapt the model to the Travel Trails that had been created by Governor Connely (the director of the Plains Trail has written a history of the trail system, including reference to my work (pdf).

We did this. But then the project got contentious. The Executive Director got very controlling, even though I could tell he had no clue of the vision. We completed our work, and the project went away. I moved on to many other projects, including my involvement with Dr. Carson Watt, and the beginning workshops for the creation of what we came to call "The Nature Tourism Guidebook" - pdf.

As the Heritage Trail continued to develop over the years, I was aware of its progress, it's failings, and the overall incompetence in it's implementation. Both Jim Kimmel and I saw that it had been absorbed, and become a bureaucratic beast. My "in the field" reporter was a young man Stan Meador who had early on been active on the Forts Trail, but had bowed out as to be a waste of his time. Stan, and his X-Bar Ranch near Eldorado, and San Angelo were a kind of "poster child" nature tourism project. Later I brought Stan in to assist me with AdventGX. He even was our representative speaker in Fargo, ND on January 13, 2006 - where I got to introduce myself to Jeff Bezos who was the keynote speaker at the Marketplace for Entrepreneurs. (another set of digressions)

Ironically, I never stopped supporting the Texas Historical Commission and the Heritage Trail Program. Several times I was invited to give talks after I took my position as an Extension Professor in the Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences Department at Texas A&M University. The "Trail Coordinators" were poorly paid staff, had a lot of responsibilities and had significant ground to cover as the trails, geographically, were large. Plus, their main job was to implement various bureaucratic, competitive grant programs that kept communities stepping and fetching, in hopes of winning small community grants.

From 2003 until 2004, I was developing the TexBox project with Andy Keith, a program director who was responsible for the Texas Rest Area Restoration Project ($254M). I was also serving as the only academic representative on the Texas Tourism State Agency Task Force, so I was privy to various activities. I had successfully gotten the TexBox project launched with only $44,000, and was looking to go statewide. I don't believe Coach Connect had come into the picture as of yet, but they too have an interesting part of the story, especially as it relates to my experiences with AdventGX.

At this time I was very good friends with Doris Howdeshell, the Director for the Travel Division at TxDOT, I was working with all of the other agencies involved in tourism (see Nature Tourism in Texas). I assumed that because I was working so closely with several agency people, that I would be a good candidate for Transportation Enhancement Program funding.

At the time I figured roughly, $1M would go a long way to put 100 kiosks at all of the rest areas. This did not happen. What did happen, the THC got $4.1M to do 3 of their trails (out of 10). What this money was used for?, I don't know. Their was already up and running. Trail coordinators were, I am sure, relatively low paid staff. I got to know a number of them when I did my training programs. They weren't the highest caliber of folks.

What I do know, John Nau, was the Chairman of THC Commission.  He was also the largest Budweiser distributor in the world, out of Houston, TX. I learned about Texas State agency commissions when I was working at Texas Parks and Wildlife. They were political appointees. They were wealthy. They were fickle. And most of them, seemed to only be interested in having the "symbolic" position, however, now that I am older, I am sure there was a whole other level of corruption, and self interest involved. The Bass Brothers (Bass Pro Shops) were on the TPWD commission when I was there. I only knew of one good commissioner at TPWD and that was Terri Hershey. I met her a number of times and she seemed truly dedicated to the cause of TPWDs mission. I always worked on cutting edge, and innovative, entrepreneurial projects there. Andy Sansom saw the writing on the wall with legislative funding being cut, so he got creative. I guess I was his sort of Maverick in that regards working on two very interesting projects called Texas Adventures and The TPWD Gift Collection (a mail order catalog(.

Back to how John Nau became the Chair of THC Commission, I don't know. How they got access to $4.1M to do essentially nothing.

Then, in 2006, President Bush, Jr. gave a national recognition to the Texas Heritage Trail Program, and appointed John as the chairman of some program called Preserve America. I have not spent any time to research this, I only heard that these things occurred and went about my business. I have no idea how a Budweiser distributor would know anything about rural America, or preserving it's culture and heritage, much less it's thriving and revitalization. The only thing Budweiser is good at preserving, is it's dubious cash flow at the expense of the troubles that alcohol has caused for humanity. I guess it would be good at preserving, like pickling, brains and other organs of the human body.

The ironic twist of all of this, when I got sober in 1981, my drink of choice was Budweiser. Even though the first time I drank it in the Arboretum near Welch Jr. High School off of State Street, and it tasted like horse piss, I did acquire a taste for it near the end of my drinking days.

Another funny twist, I used to tell people in meetings that I quit drinking so long ago that I never even got to drink Bud Light, it hadn't been invented. The other day, January 13, 2019, I guess, I saw a commercial that Bud Light is no promoting how special their beer is by putting the ingredients on the packages. This was actually shown as a legitimate news item, on KWQC, not just an advertisment.

Courses for Jim Kimmel with the Center for Nature and Heritage Tourism

Texas Yes! and my turning down providing the content for 10 workshops

About the same time that I was dealing with the TexBox Project, I was approached by the marketing director for Susan Combs, the Texas Secretary of Agriculture about providing assistance to develop a series of community tourism development workshops around the state.

This lady didn't know that I was privy to Susan receiving $1.2 million from Governor Rick Perry. There were a lot of changes occurring in Texas state government as soon as Rick took office after George Jr., went to DC. I will discuss that later.

I am sharing this information here to indicate the amounts of money that were exchanged without apparent oversight. Most of us would love to get a million dollars to do our work. I know with that amount of money I could have made a huge impact.

When the marketing person came to my office at Francis Hall on Texas A&M campus should started by telling me the story how Susan one day just decided she wanted a new program, immediately. And that she wanted to call it Texas Yes! Now I am not quoting anyone here, this is simply my memory of the conversations. I will let the documents that I attach reveal the exchange as it occurred.

She began saying that she knew absolutely nothing about how to proceed, but was informed that the RPTS Dept., Cooperative Extension would likely be the right partner. I told her yes. That we have been conducting this kind of work for 30 or more years. I have to credit Dr. Carson Watt and his team for this. I was merely the current Extension Professor who was working across the state. I told her I would gladly provide a cost effective, high quality program.

She was asking for a lot. Ten workshops, during the year at locations across the state, with several staff and high caliber speakers. I could, however, sense she was budget conscious. Again though, I did know that she began with $1.2 million. So, I spent considerable time to put together the substance of the program, then work out the details of all of the expenses to host, organize, arrange and coordinate this complex set of activities, in far flung places across a very large state.

My first attempt I came up to about $120,000. I knew she was being tight with money, so I cut it back to about $103,000, as you will see.

After all of this effort, and me assuring her that we were really the only university with the necessary content, and expertise to host high quality workshops, and cutting the budget to the bare minimum, her response was simply "We thought we could do it for about 1/2 of that, or $50,000.

My response simply was "nope". This whole experience irked me, especially since I knew they had more than adequate budget to work with, and in a sense, these workshops would have been a terrific benefit to the state. I had an ability to keep my finger on the pulse of things and communities were really needing assistance during these times.

I heard from another source that they went to Sam Houston State to a professor who had done tourism work and got their $50K program.

My in the field person attended one workshop and reported that there was lots of "stuff" like pens, wine, fancy set up, snacks, but the content of the program was, essentially, a joke.

More changes to Texas State Government when Rick Perry took office

I had worked with Texas government since 1993. After I became active at a higher level in 1997, with the THC project, I also got connected to the state tourism statistician Stan Hodge. We had a connection that went beyond just our interest to bring benefit through tourism to the state. Stan was a dedicated, and capable statistician. He passed suddenly in 2005. He had graduated from the Geography Dept, with a Masters degree at SWTSU. I worked fairly closely with Stan on a number of initiatives, and I found his assessment and presentations to be quite informative.

I had another project with Stan, collaborating with Jim Petrick, that was very educational for me as to the general nature of "successful" academics. It was a pretty challenging, but enlightening experience that involved us conducting standardized surveys for about 22 state agencies. This story will be for later.

In any case, when Rick Perry came to take the governor office, the lead economic development agency had already experienced a very tumultuous time over the prior decade. (Details are provided in the Nature Tourism in Texas article). It had changed names, and been restructured a number of times. I worked very closely with the Tourism Division, mostly Stan. During all the prior years, it had had a staff of thirty people.

Texas is a big state! Tourism is big business! Thirty people is not a lot of people for such a big state. Here where I live in the Quad Cities, the director of tourism for this region complained about having only a staff of 20, or there abouts. This is for 13 communities with a total population of, maybe, 400,000 people.

Texas Economic development agency had a tourism staff of thirty, for a population well over 20 million.

Then, suddenly, when Rick came to office, the tourism staff was cut to 10. And, suddenly, the entire agency was absorbed into the governor's office. At the time, I recall that this economic development agency had an annual budget of $900,000,000. Wow! How does something like that happen, with no discussion, no warning. As a professional working daily with state government, I knew. However, most Texans had no idea this kind of thing had occurred.

I surmised, simply, that Rick Perry had magically been appointed King of Texas!

That was not me last experience, directly related to good ole Ricky. See more on Dr. Richard Ewing.