Outgoing tourism director shares thoughts on the city’s greatest assets, potential improvements
photo by: Mike Yoder
If downtown Lawrence is the city’s crown jewel, then the city’s outgoing tourism director thinks there is more the community can do to make it shine, as well as other community gems that deserve a little more attention.
Michael Davidson, the executive director of local convention and visitors bureau Explore Lawrence, plans to retire this spring after serving in his position since April 2016. Davidson came to Lawrence after working in the tourism industry for 30 years, including leading tourism bureaus in Walla Walla, Wash., and Long Island, N.Y., where he grew up.
Explore Lawrence works to create economic development in the community by attracting visitors, conventions and events to the city, according to its website. As he prepares to end his time in Lawrence, Davidson shared his thoughts about what he sees as the community’s greatest assets — and areas where the city is not making the most of them. Davidson said the culture or vibe of the community was unique to the state, and that Explore Lawrence had tried to build on that aspect of the city.
“There is sort of a vibe about Lawrence that doesn’t exist in the rest of the state,” Davidson said. “It’s that blue bubble in a red state. It’s a very engaged community.”
A touchstone of the city’s culture is its historic downtown, which Davidson noted had been named the most visited attraction in Kansas. But he said the reality is that online commerce is going to continue to grow, and the community needs to focus on how to make sure the city still has a great downtown in 20 years.
Davidson said one way he thought the community could ensure the longevity of downtown was to increase the entertainment or experience-based options. As examples, he gave the puzzle-solving escape room Breakout Lawrence; the game pub RPG; and a former axe throwing business, Blade & Timber, which closed following a fire.
Another way Davidson thinks downtown can be more experience-driven, though, is one that has gotten pushback from some downtown business owners. He said events that temporarily close down some downtown streets, such as the downtown Lawrence shot-put competition, the Tour of Lawrence bicycle race or the Lawrence Busker Festival, are all experiential in nature, offer something different and bring new visitors to downtown who he thinks are likely to come back to visit again.
“When we close parts of downtown, there is always a pushback,” Davidson said. “And I think that should be something that we should all be embracing, because if you come to Lawrence once, you’re going to want to come back.”
photo by: Mike Yoder
Davidson listed various cultural assets of the city, including the Lawrence Arts Center, the Watkins Museum of History, the Spencer Museum of Art and the Dole Institute of Politics, as well as the University of Kansas as a whole. He noted the community’s athletic facilities, miles of outdoor trails, and that before the coronavirus pandemic, it was possible to find live music any night of the week.
Davidson said it would be helpful if the downtown business owners who were resistant to temporary street closures were more open. Apart from closures for large events, he noted that cities big and small close portions of their downtown streets regularly, be it for monthly art walks or even each weekend to help create a pedestrian experience. For example, he said if Lawrence closed parts of Massachusetts Street for its monthly art walk, Final Fridays, it could add features to the event such as music on every block.
“I know they are very sensitive to it, but I think we need to seriously consider reimagining Mass. Street to make it work for us,” Davidson said. “I’m concerned that we just do what we’ve done traditionally.”
Davidson said he was also a fan of ongoing efforts to develop the waterfront of the Kansas River, which borders downtown but has limited access points. He said to be a river town and not take advantage of the river was a missed opportunity to enhance the downtown and develop outdoor recreation activities that are associated with the river. He said as people started to travel again following the pandemic, outdoor activities would come back first. Instead of just replacing a retaining wall, the city has discussed creating a terraced stone plaza along the shoreline that creates river entry points, extends slightly into the river and helps create pools and whitewater for kayaking and other water activities. However, it is not clear whether that project will move forward.
Outside of the downtown, Davidson said there were a lot of assets in Lawrence to support large athletic events, but that particularly in youth sports there were challenges coordinating among the entities that owned athletic courts and fields. He said that included the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department, the school district and the University of Kansas, which he said together could help the community attract larger athletic events. Davidson said he saw that as a big opportunity for growth that would drive overnight stays in Lawrence and support the local economy.
“When you start to bring an event in that has a regional or national pull, the dollars just spread through the community,” Davidson said.
When it comes to events as a whole, Davidson said one question to consider is whether it is appropriate for Explore Lawrence to get into the business of creating new events. He said that right now individuals or small groups create events in Lawrence, and that he thinks it’s worth considering whether Explore Lawrence should play a more active role.
The future of downtown, sporting events, and event creation will likely be among the issues that Explore Lawrence’s new executive director will have to contend with. With the help of Davidson, the governing board of Explore Lawrence began a nationwide search for the next executive director in February.
Explore Lawrence board chair Mike Logan, who is also involved in the ownership of several downtown businesses, said that when it came to the experience or characteristics the board was looking for in the next executive director, it started with Explore Lawrence’s goal of creating economic development by attracting visitors, conventions and events. Logan said the board was looking for someone with a distinct understanding of how visitors impact the city as well as revenue such as sales tax and transient guest tax.
“Certainly (we’re looking for) someone with a distinct understanding of what that component is to the city of Lawrence,” Logan said.
Logan said after the pandemic canceled many events and conventions, Explore Lawrence would need to double down on its efforts to showcase what Lawrence has to offer and attract those events back. In addition, he said the search for a new executive director was coming as the Explore Lawrence board was working on a strategic planning process for the organization, and after the city’s recently created strategic plan singled out the city’s “unmistakable identity” — including arts, culture and events — as one of five key outcomes of the plan.
“So it’s a really neat time for the organization,” Logan said. “We’re going to look at it as a positive, and we’ve certainly got momentum headed into this search.”
Logan said Explore Lawrence had recently closed applications for the position and received good interest throughout the region and beyond. He said the plan was to begin the first round of interviews by the end of this week and to potentially name the next director sometime in June.