Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Attracting Tourists

Last week my best friend, who lives in King of Prussia, said to me, "Hey, do you know that the zoo has a zip-line?"

Of course I knew. I live in that neighborhood and drive along Harding Blvd several times a week. You can't help but see the zip-line Elmwood Park Zoo put in this summer, or if you do somehow miss it, you'll at least see the signs for it. Why hadn't I told my friend about it? Truth is, like a lot of us, I take the zoo for granted.

For a native N-towner like me, the zoo's always been a neighbor. When I was a kid, it was little more than a duck pond, two miserable bears, a stinky monkey house and a bison pen. I guess I was in junior high when they began expanding it--lions, howler monkeys, snakes, a petting zoo with farm animals, big birds. I could hear the lions and howler monkeys from my house when our windows were open. Great way to freak out overnight guests.

For the US Bicentennial in 1976, the zoo expanded up the hill by building a boardwalk and adding American animal exhibits like bighorn sheep, elk, bald eagles and my favorites, prairie dogs. They raised money by selling planks on the boardwalk (and at fairly reasonable prices--I remember everyone wanting to get their family's name on a board).

After that, the zoo really seemed to take off. More people came, so they could afford to built more and more exhibits, They started charging a fee, which discouraged locals at first, but outside visitors didn't know the difference, so the zoo kept growing. This year, Elmwood Park Zoo celebrates it's 90th anniversary, so every 1st Sunday of the month from 2 to 5 pm, the zoo is free to Norristown residents.

Outside of Philadelphia, it's one of the larger tourist attractions in southeastern PA, and is starting to be really talked about in the surrounding counties. A Bucks County friend mentioned to me not long ago, "I didn't know Norristown had a zoo. And it's so big!"  When you drive by on a nice summer weekday, you can see that the lot is fairly full. On a weekend, it's packed. Cars are parked on the grass around the entrance.


But most of the residents, like me, take the zoo for granted. It's on the fringe of town, so most of us don't see the tourists. Whenever town leaders and planners envision bringing outsiders into town, they talk about things needing to happen downtown. Five Saints Distillery and Firehouse Museum hopefully WILL start bringing visitors to Main Street starting next year, but no one seems to be thinking about what to do with those tourists after they tour Five Saints. Let them simply go home? No, we should be coming up with ways to keep them in town longer, spending their money. Maybe start with something as simple as handing out coupons for the restaurants on Main and the theaters on Dekalb. And don't forget, we've got thousands of outsiders visiting Norristown every weekend via the Schuylkill River Trail. Right now, they cycle straight through without stopping.

Look at all these visitors!
At Elmwood Park, tourists visit the zoo and they go home. How can we encourage them to stay? We've got some good restaurants in the North End, like Zachary's BBQ and Sessano's. How many visitors to the zoo even know those eateries exist? We desperately need SIGNS.

Right now, the look of Logan Square encourages tourists to leave faster. The place needs a facelift--with a big bright mural on the wall facing Johnson Highway--and businesses geared to tourists. More eateries, ice cream, a bakery, a souvenir shop. AND we need another tourist attraction at Logan Square. How about something like indoor miniature golf?

Via Venuto's will be returning. The work on Markley is a pain now, but we'll have pretty new curbs, and a turning lane when PennDOT's done. Let's give tourists a reason to use that turning lane.

Anyone else have an idea for a tourist attraction, at Logan Square or anywhere else in town? What are the kinds of places you like to visit? Leave a comment below or on Facebook.

Leaders, add more signs to connect the dots between where the tourists are and where we need them to be--our restaurants and theaters, at least. Come up with ways to bring in more tourist attractions and related businesses.  Residents, tell your out-of-town friends about our zoo and other places in town you'd think they'd enjoy. We all need to start thinking of Norristown as having a tourist economy and act on it.

1 comment:

  1. I talk up our zoo a lot; it's one of my favorite things about living in Norristown. I have my second annual pass and I bought and gifted one to a friend and her family for Christmas. I think eateries and ice cream are good ideas; provided people don't just do so at the zoo. There is the new Petrucci's ice cream stand within, as well as their fantastic playground. Maybe offering a "City-pass" sort of deal; zoo admission, a show at the theater and a discount on local dinner?