At the County Council Candidates’ forum on Oct. 15 there was some talk about improving Grand County’s economy. The usual suspects were trotted out – mineral leases, nuclear and renewable energy, the college, etc.
So, I asked the question, “What role can local government play to improve the tourist economy?” I heard some muttering and murmurs, but nothing that sounded like a well-considered answer.
I recently read a book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”, which gives name to an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for a long time.
The authors, economists from the University of Chicago, call it ‘choice architecture’. It’s fairly simple: How you design something defines the choices you have later on in your home, business, community, law, codes, and so on. Here are some examples of how choice architecture might be applied to improve Grand County’s tourist economy.
Why is there a block-long vacant lot in the heart of Moab; that is, the Rocky Mountain Power utility yard? It cuts downtown in half, separates Swanny Park from the rest of town, and creates an unpleasant dead zone for pedestrians.
What about a business park with street level retail, instead? Or an apartment complex for students, seniors, and seasonal workers? Or an Imax theater? Something other than a lifeless hole in the middle of downtown.
Why is Powerhouse loaded with trash, tumbleweeds, and dog poop? It is the most heavily visited area in the County outside of the national parks, but local mothers don’t take their kids there because it’s so filthy and dangerous. Why not a County park that could be enjoyed by locals and tourists for generations to come?
Where can busloads of tourists go to eat box lunches in the shade and enjoy the scenery? Basically, nowhere. One mile up River Road is a BLM parking lot with nothing on it but an information sign. How about shade structures, picnic tables, and bathrooms? The tour operators and tourists would love it. Maybe you don’t like seeing busloads of people in Moab, but the motels, restaurants, tour companies, and souvenir shops do.
What about Arches? People from all over the world go to Arches. When they get to the Visitor Center, The Windows, or Devil’s Garden there is no place to hang out. There is no shade. There are no tables. On any May day there might be a hundred cars parked at the Landscape Arch trailhead. A third of them will have the engines running with Grandma inside waiting for the rest of the family to come back from their walk. It’s as if the Park Service had put out a big sign that says “Welcome to Arches. Now Leave.”
Notice, I’m not playing any favorites. I just picked on private enterprise, the City, the County, the BLM, and the Park Service. My list of complaints goes on and on.
Why isn’t there a splash pool along the downtown section of the Mill Creek Parkway? Why does Eddie McStiff’s have a parking lot at Center and Main instead of a plaza? Why isn’t there an assisted living high-rise along the Mill Creek Parkway instead of a place where you take your dog to socialize with other dogs?
Don’t get me wrong. I like dogs, but I prefer people.
Extroverts comprise two-thirds of the human race. They love to meet new people and make new friends, especially on vacation. Unlike mineral deposits, people are an inexhaustible, renewable resource.
Why not look to creating places they want to come to over and over again? This is a major philosophical shift from what I heard at the candidates’ forum. If we put our minds, and hearts, and wills to it, we can play to our strengths.
Instead of chasing after imaginary nickels, why not start picking up the dollars lying at our feet? Creating choice architecture designed to attract and return tourists would take long-term, focused efforts between private parties, businesses, and government entities. Conversations would have to held, fights fought, agreements reached, policies created, laws changed, investments made, and so on.
But that’s all possible. And we would all do better for it.