After a quarter-century working to fill the city's hotels, restaurants and other businesses with money-spending visitors, Judy Billings is being recognized for her work that stretches well beyond the city's boundaries.
Billings, director of the Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau and executive vice president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, is this year's winner of the Governor's Tourism Achievement Award, the state's top tourism honor.
Billings earned the award for her work as chairwoman of a regional tourism effort known as Freedom's Frontier: Bleeding Kansas and the Enduring Struggle for Freedom National Heritage Area.
The proposed area would include 26 counties in eastern Kansas, including Douglas County, and carry the potential to add another 12 counties in western Missouri. The counties include historic sites, museums and other features that could be used to tell the region's story, from the early times of American Indians and the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act through the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation case and into the present day.
Billings is leading the charge to convince Congress to allocate $10 million over the next 15 years to develop and promote exhibits, museums and historic sites within the region, including Black Jack Battlefield near Baldwin and the Watkins Community Museum of History in Lawrence.
The effort - which passed the Senate on July 26 and now is pending in the House - has been building for three years, and state officials consider her work to date as a "superior accomplishment" in tourism circles.
"Judy epitomizes the criteria for this award - cooperation, sustainability, quality and accountability," said Becky Blake, director of travel and tourism for the Kansas Department of Commerce, which announced the award this week. "It is a pleasure to recognize an effort that has brought together a collection of diverse communities and interests, motivated by the achievement of a common goal."
The award is reflective of an "incredible, grass-roots effort" to tell the region's unique story on the national stage, Billings said. Volunteers, museum administrators and government officials are working together to build a cohesive vision.
"I have taken a leadership role in getting these 26 counties together : but without them going out there and doing it, it couldn't happen," Billings said.
Billings joined the Lawrence chamber 25 years ago today. Back then, as a part-time secretary, she was the lone employee of the 6-week-old Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau, which operated on a $50,000 budget.
Today, the operation has five full-time employees and one part-timer, with a budget of more than $600,000 and a full-fledged visitors center in the former Union Pacific Depot in North Lawrence.