Retiring Barkley praised for passion, influence

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 29, 2003

Lenore Barkley greets Bill Longfellow as guests line up to say their thanks and congratulations during her retirement party at the Battlefield Inn Thursday.(Melanie Duncan ThortisThe Vicksburg Post)

[8/29/03]The state’s top tourism official said it was easy for her to spot Vicksburg’s Lenore Barkley as someone to respect.

Darienne Wilson, director of tourism development for the Mississippi Development Authority, was one of several speakers Thursday at Barkley’s retirement party, attended by about 150 people at Battlefield Inn.

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“She was a veteran of tourism, and I was a new kid on the block,” Wilson said of meeting Barkley when Wilson was a Natchez Eola hotel employee 21 years ago.

“I have looked up to, respected, admired, learned from Lenore for many, many years,” Wilson said. “She has a great passion for our state. She understands what it is we’re about and how to sell it.”

Wilson said people who map out tours everywhere know Barkley. “I had the privilege of going to the world travel market a couple of years ago in London,” Wilson said, “and I had more people ask about Lenore than anybody else in Mississippi.”

Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation Executive Director Nancy Bell was master of ceremonies for the tribute. “In this community, you’ve left your mark, and your influence will still be felt for years to come in lives you’ve touched,” Bell read from a tribute to Barkley written by community volunteer organizer Frances Koury.

The event was on the eve of Barkley’s last day after 18 years as executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, which she has served for 27 years altogether.

The VCVB was founded shortly before Barkley arrived, as a spinoff of Chamber of Commerce and other tourism development efforts. Through special legislation, permission was obtained to add a special sales tax to fund the agency a first in Mississippi. County and city officials appoint a board that, in turn, hires a director and staff to advertise and promote the city and its attractions.

The tax, collected on motel rooms and bar and restaurant tabs, now raises nearly $1 million per year.

Barkley plans to continue working with the VCVB as head of her own firm, Kudzu Public Relations Inc., beginning in November.

“I’ve had the time of my life promoting this wonderful city,” Barkley said. “I wouldn’t trade it for a million dollars. I treasure the 27 years that I’ve had the opportunity to work in this city’s tourism industry.”

Two years ago, Barkley became one of five charter inductees into the Mississippi Tourism Hall of Fame, Wilson noted.

“I learned from her then, and I learn from her today,” Wilson said. “Tourism doesn’t just happen. Just because you live in a place that has great historical value, and you live in a place that has what we call the product’ you have the real product here but that thing about Build it and they will come,’ that ain’t true, y’all.

“It’s only true if you market it, and you’re in the right places, and you make the right contacts, and you do it strategically, and you do it within a budget ,and you do it smartly, and Lenore Barkley did all that. Vicksburg is on the map because you have the product, but because she was smart enough to market it.”

Even with a small budget for paid advertising, Barkley was effective because of her work with magazine and travel writers. “She figured out that if you get an article written, that’s worth a lot. And so she went about finding out how to do that,” Wilson said.

Former VCVB manager Al Elmore said he had worked for Barkley for 20 of the 23 years he had known her.

“Her professional integrity and ethics,” he said when asked to comment on her career. “The thing that sticks out is the way she handles herself and her business.”

“From the governor on down, everybody knows Lenore in the tourism business,” said George Mayer, who, with his wife, Carolyn, owns Annabelle Bed and Breakfast. “And it’s a big loss” to the VCVB.

“The nice thing is, Lenore is leaving this position, but we’re not losing her, thank God,” Battlefield Inn owner Warner Byrum said, adding that he has known Barkley since she came to Vicksburg. “I think she’s going to be as visible or more visible with the new private business she’s starting up.”

Board members have not announced a new director.