Vicksburg Tourism: If you build it, they will come|Boosts expected in coming years; various offerings seen expanding

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 7, 2010

This is the first in a series of stories by staff writer Steve Sanoski and journalism students from the University fMississippi. On Monday: Success might come at home, and the Vicksburg National Military Park.

From Civil War battlefields, antebellum homes and historical museums to outdoors adventures, Delta blues and riverboat casinos, Vicksburg tourists are attracted to the River City for myriad reasons.

The project

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Five journalism students from the University of Mississippi spent — Aline Carambat, Andrew Mullen Scott, Elizabeth Pearson, Donica Phifer and David Hopper — two days in Vicksburg last month — to gather and report on the future of tourism in the area. Their stories, directed by reporter Steve Sanoski and Executive Editor Charlie Mitchell, are being published today through Friday.

“Vicksburg is easy to sell. It really is, because if you name it, we got it,” said Elmerree Bradley, supervisor of the Mississippi Welcome Center on Washington Street, which welcomes about 150,000 visitors a year and offers a picturesque view of the Mississippi River and the river bridges. “And they come for it all.”

Tourism directly accounted for about 4,000 jobs in Vicksburg and Warren County in 2009 — about 16 percent of the entire workforce — according to the Mississippi Development Authority Division of Tourism. Visitors to the city and county spent an estimated $209 million last year. Those numbers have dipped steadily in recent years, and the MDA Tourism Division is predicting a still-lagging economy will cause industry indicators to slide a little further this year.

But with new museums on the way, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War nearing and continuous refinement of marketing and advertising efforts by the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, those in the local tourism industry are optimistic stagnant tourism numbers will climb in coming years.

In development

Two new museums will open near the floodwall murals, splash fountain and playground at the City Front Catfish Row Art Park within two years.

With the retired MV Mississippi IV as its centerpiece, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Interpretive Center broke ground in November and is expected to be completed in the spring of 2011. The $16 million interpretive center and museum will feature interactive exhibits on the Corps’ efforts to improve navigation and limit flooding on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Exhibits on life surrounding the lower Mississippi River are also planned, as is a walkway and observation deck.

One block away down Levee Street, the long-vacant, 103-year-old Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad depot is about to undergo a renovation that will result in a new transportation museum and office spaces for two tourism-promotion agencies.

City officials have estimated work on the Levee Street Depot will begin this summer. A year after renovations begin, second-story offices spaces for the Vicksburg Main Street Program and the VCVB should be ready for occupancy. The transportation museum, which will feature steamship, railway and aviation models, as well as historical exhibits, memorabilia and a library, is expected to open six months later. 

“That will be a big shot in the arm for us, because both of those products will give Vicksburg something new that people have not seen here before,” said Bill Seratt, VCVB executive director. “It’s definitely going to bring some renewed interest to Vicksburg tourism.”

The year 2011 also will also bring the start of Vicksburg’s participation in the nationwide Civil War Sesquicentennial, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States. The first event, Seratt said, will be in April 2011, and local events will continue through July 4, 2013 — the sesquicentennial of the fall of Vicksburg to Union forces.

The Mississippi Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission has been formed by the Legislature, but remains unfunded. The City of Vicksburg is matching $150,000 with a $150,000 federal Preserve America grant to develop local sesquicentennial events, said Seratt, who also chairs the state commission. 

“The state funding is still in limbo, but we’ll be promoting the sesquicentennial very aggressively,” Seratt said. “In addition to one-time sesquicentennial events, our annual local events such as the Tapestry home tours and the Run Thru History will have a Civil War theme and carry the sesquicentennial icon. The sesquicentennial is going to bring a lot of media attention to Vicksburg, and there will be a lot of interest from both the casual Civil War fan and the Civil War buffs.”

Tapestry, the annual interpretive home tour series launched in 2009, is an example of how Vicksburg continues to refine its cultural heritage products, Seratt said.

Tapestry mixes traditional home tours— offered in Vicksburg for more than 50 years — with presentations unique and relevant to each property, including jewelry-making, Civil War surgical practices, a history of the Vicksburg slave trade and the art of making stained glass. This year’s weekend series has been expanded to include 17 properties. It will kick off Thursday and run through April 5.

“Research shows that baby boomers are very interested in historic interpretation for their children and grandchildren,” Seratt said. “They don’t want the lessons of America to be forgotten, and they want more than just historical markers.” 

To that end, the VCVB has begun beefing up its stock of period clothing to lend to tour operators to give Tapestry and other events a more authentic feel. The VCVB thus far has purchased some men’s jackets and 30 dresses for about $3,000.

“The big challenge is to provide value — and value does not mean being cheap. It means providing visitors a quality experience for their money,” said Seratt.

Room to improve

One of Seratt’s first priorities upon taking the reigns of VCVB in April 2007 was to re-stylize and update the Vicksburg logo and tourist guide to appeal to a more affluent traveler. He also urged the VCVB board of directors to invest in new niche tourism guides to capture travelers who had not been targeted before.

“We basically have two distinct groups of tourists, the cultural heritage tourists and the gamers,” Seratt said. “But we have so many more resources that we’re not taking advantage of.”  

In 2009, the VCVB unveiled a glossy, full-color nature guide in partnership with the Audubon Society Lower Mississippi River Program in Vicksburg and the Lower Delta Partnership. The guide highlights wildlife areas in a 30-mile radius of Vicksburg and provides info on accessing them and the Mississippi River.

“The Mississippi River is a huge draw, and we need to tap into that more,” Seratt said. “As you travel between Memphis and Vicksburg, you really don’t have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Mississippi River. Here, you really get to understand what a power body of water it is.”

Eco-tourism is one of just a few niche travel markets the VCVB is trying to tap into to diversify Vicksburg’s image. A “soft adventure” tour guide focusing on camping, canoeing, hiking, biking and birding and is being developed. Another guide highlighting the artistry of the sculptures and monuments in the VNMP is also in the works. Seratt also hopes to update a guide on Vicksburg architectural styles, and VCVB board member Willie Glasper is looking into developing an African-American tour and guidebook.

“We’re looking at doing something that explains the role blacks played in the history and development of Vicksburg — not just a guide that points out African-American sites,” said Glasper. “There’s a need for it, and if we do it right I think we could really tap into more revenue for the city. The national military park has been one of our greatest tourism assets for a long time, and I don’t want this to sound negative, but I think we need to look beyond the park and the re-enactments because Vicksburg has so much more to offer.”

Bradley said an African-American tour route for Vicksburg is one of the most requested programs she doesn’t have at the Mississippi Welcome Center.

Bradley noted similar guides of Natchez, Jackson and Philadelphia are very popular with tourists. “It’s their history, and they want to see it.”

Other areas in which Bradley said she feels ill-equipped to advise tourists include children’s activities and regular evening entertainment. The splash park at Catfish Row is popular with families in the summer months, but Bradley said tourists frequently say they wish Vicksburg had a year-round amusement park. For many tourists travelling by car on U.S. 61 — The Blues Highway — Vicksburg is a midway point on the Memphis-to-New Orleans trip. The majority of those tourists want live music, said Bradley, and are disappointed at Vicksburg’s offerings compared to other Delta cities and towns.

“They really want regular evening entertainment; live blues and jazz — that’s what they’ve come to Mississippi for,” she said. “The weekends are not so bad, but during the week the schedule is pretty thin.”

Moving ahead

While the VCVB visitor center on Clay Street and the Mississippi Welcome Center one of the primary sources of information, tourists’ methods for booking rooms and finding attractions, restaurants and bars is continually moving online. The mode by which the majority of tourists are finding Vicksburg is also changing.

“The majority of travelers are not stopping at welcome centers anymore. They’re going online to find out about hotels, restaurants and attractions, and making most of their plans based on what they find there. They’re printing out the info they want, and they’re calling for our brochures less and less,” Seratt said. 

Seratt has responded to that shift by convincing the VCVB board to commission a $75,000 overhaul of the VCVB Web site, which continues to evolve.

“Our Web site is a living marketing piece — it will constantly be changing,” he said. “We’re about to ratchet it up to the next level, with more online sweepstakes and promotions.”

Seratt also has increased VCVB television and print advertising spending by 50 percent over the past three years — to roughly $645,000 this year — hitting all major metro markets with commercials and ads in the Southeast.

Drawing in additional tourists from those drive-in markets will be key, as river tourism travel has all but dried up in Vicksburg over the past two years. The loss of three river tour steamboats that brought thousands of visitors to the city each year has had a sizable impact on local attractions.

In November 2008, the 174-passenger Delta Queen steamboat docked in Vicksburg for the last time. Before that, at the end of the 2007 season, the 422-passenger Mississippi Queen and the 426-passenger American Queen ceased operations and their stops here. 

“We used to get about 40 to 50 stops per year, and two to three busloads of visitors who would come to all the local attractions from each stop,” said Battlefield Museum owner and operator Lamar Roberts.

The loss of the Queens, said Roberts, has cut into the number of annual visitors at his museum by 10 percent. A Louisiana law enacted in 2009 forbidding schools to take out-of-state field trips has cut into business about 10 percent more, he added.

“People are just hanging on by their fingernails trying to get through these times,” said Roberts, who also is executive director of the transportation museum under development. “I think our only hope is to begin advertising Vicksburg as a real destination, and not a stop on the way to your destination.”

Visitation numbers at the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, Old Court House Museum and Vicksburg National Military Park were all up slightly in 2009 over the year previous. While Roberts’ overall numbers were down, he said visitation was up slightly when tourists generated by the Queens was not factored in.

Weighing Vicksburg’s developing attractions and events against the still-dismal economy and other challenges facing the local tourism industry, Seratt said he’s optimistic about visitor numbers going forward.

“I think they’re headed up,” he said without hesitation. “We still market very aggressively to the group tour market, but most of our traffic is going to come from individual travelers in the future — and we’re adjusting. We’ll continue to focus on advertising in a 500-mile radius to keep Vicksburg in the forefront of travelers’ minds, and we’ll continue to refine the branding of Vicksburg as our offerings expand and improve.”

Contact Steve Sanoski at