Over the last 30 years, Lawrence has had no more loyal and enthusiastic ambassador than Judy Billings.
First, as director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau and, more recently, as the president and CEO of Destination Management Inc., Billings has been an effective and determined advocate for just about any project or activity that would make Lawrence a more attractive visitor destination. Her retirement will mark a significant passing of the torch for Lawrence and a number of efforts that focus on the community’s tourism and history.
Throughout her career, Billings had a special talent for recognizing opportunities and turning them into reality. Attracting the filming of “The Day After” to Lawrence was one of her first successes. The made-for-TV movie had a huge economic impact for Lawrence as well as drawing nationwide attention to the community. Under her leadership, Lawrence established the Lawrence Visitors Center in the former Union Pacific Depot and took giant strides toward becoming a leading venue for a variety of sporting events that draw thousands of visitors to Lawrence each year.
The most recent project that benefited from Billings’ leadership was the formation of the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, which now has its headquarters in the former Carnegie Library building at Ninth and Vermont. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the designation of the heritage area, which encompasses 41 counties in eastern Kansas and western Missouri, simply wouldn’t have happened without more than a decade of strategic and determined leadership from Billings.
Of all the benefits Billings brought to Lawrence, Freedom’s Frontier has the potential to be her most lasting legacy. The goal of the heritage area is to tell many stories about the ongoing struggles for freedom in the 41 counties, including what many Lawrence people think is one of the central stories: the pre-Civil War border wars. Lawrence played a pivotal role in that story, and Billings has put the city and Douglas County in a position to continue to serve a major role in historical tourism based on those events.
Billings would be quick to point to the many other people involved in the Freedom’s Frontier effort and about every other accomplishment of her tenure at the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Destination Management, which now serves as an administrative umbrella for the CVB, Freedom’s Frontier and the county’s historical societies. Building coalitions and community support for various local projects has been a hallmark of Billings’ career, but her leadership has been an essential element to the success of those projects.
Billings’ role as a community advocate won’t end with her retirement, but this is a good time for local residents to thank her for her 30-year commitment to Lawrence residents and visitors.