Elk Grove hopes tourism effort will alter its image

(Courtesy of Sacramento Bee)
By Richard Chang

Elk Grove, the large Sacramento suburb often viewed as a bedroom community, is hoping to overcome its sleepy image with a focus on large events to attract new visitors and a sleek website costing $45,000 to promote tourism in the city.

“We’re trying to address the conception that there are only rooftops and big-box stores in Elk Grove,” said city spokeswoman Christine Brainerd, head of the new tourism campaign.

City leaders envision a civic center, children’s museum and soccer stadium as future attractions. They also see potential for an outlet mall and splashy water park.

But in a landscape dominated by tract homes, neighborhood parks and suburban retail, the city for now is promoting Old Town Elk Grove and events like a monthly food-truck festival to draw visitors. The city has hired an events coordinator, Kristyn Nelson, who has begun organizing a new Fitness Festival for May that plays off National Bike Month.

Mayor Gary Davis compared the city’s festival strategy to that of Gilroy, a rural farming town of 50,000 in southern Santa Clara County.

“If you ask people what it’s famous for – it’s the garlic,” he said. “The Garlic Festival brings people to Gilroy from all around California.”

The city recently launched a website aimed at promoting tourism, InElkGrove.com, which highlights places to shop, dine and play. With the headline “Picture yourself in Elk Grove California,” the site displays images of colorful sushi and beautiful parks.

Davis has resolved to create jobs, citing what he calls the worst job-housing imbalance in the region – fewer than 30,000 jobs for 159,000 residents.

“It’s part of a broader plan to promote job growth in our community. Our goal is to grow jobs by the thousands, not by the dozens,” he said.

The mayor declined to offer specific figures on job creation from tourism, saying that it was “too early.” The city does not track the number of tourists who visit or how much they contribute to the local economy.

A year ago, the city purchased a five-acre parcel of land along the railroad in Old Town and is exploring ways to develop it, said Randy Starbuck, economic development manager. The space is now the site of a monthly food-truck festival.

“Events are a calling card for the region,” said Nelson, who was appointed in May. “There’s both a social and economic value to the events.”

So far, the city has spent tens of thousands of dollars on the tourism campaign, including $45,000 for the website and $6,000 to produce a video, according to Brainerd. In addition, it has allocated $2,000 for online advertising.

The city may face an uphill battle in attracting visitors.

Out of 10 people interviewed by The Sacramento Bee during the monthly food-truck fair this month, all were Elk Grove residents except for a visitor from nearby Wilton. The residents said they enjoy living in Elk Grove, but they were skeptical that it could become a tourist destination.

John Lowry, longtime owner of Lowry Music and Antiques in Old Town, questioned whether the effort is worthwhile.

“If I was a tourist, I wouldn’t know what to do in Elk Grove,” he said, noting that the tourism programs have not helped his business.

The city’s initiatives have not always been successful. An ice rink funded by taxpayers last winter operated at a huge loss. The rink cost just under $134,000 to operate, but generated only $57,380 in revenue. It will not return this year.

“It’s a little bit soon,” said Glenda Simas, who was browsing an antique store, of Elk Grove’s tourism potential. “We don’t have enough to bring people in.”

That’s precisely why the city is rolling out the campaign now, officials say.

“We’re putting our best foot forward so we have a solid foundation to build upon over the next decade,” Brainerd said.
 Editor's Note: This article has been changed from an earlier version to clarify Elk Grove's tourism strategy. Amended on Nov. 25, 2013

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