It takes atmosphere to draw tourists. Small towns have it, but they are not using it to their best advantage, according to an Easton-based marketing consultant.
Like other small towns, Sykesville is competing for tourism dollars with larger cities and state attractions. To win the competition, the town of 3,500 along the Patapsco River must create an atmosphere that will bring visitors downtown and keep them there at least for the day, said consultant Steve Moore.
Moore compares most towns to "a brand that is underperforming" and shows town leaders how to revive their product.
He will present "Creating the Small Town as an Experience," a two-hour discussion for residents and officials, tomorrow in town. He expects to share ideas on "the best ways to market small towns."
Sykesville could highlight its river, its railroad history or its rows of neatly preserved 19th-century storefronts. A visitor's day in town must be more than a shopping venture; it must be a valuable experience, Moore said.
Main Street Maryland, a state-run program to help towns revive their downtowns, invited municipalities to contact Moore and use his expertise to plan projects. Moore will also be visiting Havre de Grace and Cambridge.
"Towns have to take back the market lost to big-box stores, and they can't do it by imitating shopping centers," Moore said. "They must create themselves as a place to be with experiences that people value. They have to be in the business of personal experience."
He plans to spend tomorrow in Sykesville touring the town with Matthew H. Candland, the town manager.
"Visitors don't come to small towns to pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread," Candland said. "They come for the experience of a small town."
In fact, as Moore will discover on his walk-around, a visitor would be hard-pressed to find groceries in Sykesville and would be more likely to pick up an antique. Main Street has no vacancies, and the thoroughfare is lined with antique and specialty shops and trendy restaurants. Main Street has no food store, pharmacy or dry cleaner, and the post office recently left for a larger building four miles away.
Sykesville wants to create a unique small-town experience that trades on its history. It should work, said Moore, a former Rouse Co. executive who worked on Faneuil Hall in Boston and addressed the World Conference of Town Center Managers in London last week.
"History has happened here, and the town should bring it to life for real people whose time is precious," Moore said. "Don't imitate shopping centers. Create yourself as a place to be."
Shopping centers, once considered gathering spots, have become dull and similar, he said. Marketing surveys have shown that the average shopper spends 49 minutes in the mall, quickly attending to planned errands.
Town officials also met recently with State Highway Administration officials on improvements to Main Street, which is a state road. Mayor Jonathan S. Herman expects to appoint a 15-member committee of residents and officials next week.
The group will work with the state on restoration efforts that include landscaping, lighting and sidewalks.
"Main Street revitalization has always been a priority for the town," Herman said. "We want a downtown that is vital and vibrant."
The presentation will begin at 7 p.m. tomorrow in the Social Hall of St. Paul's United Methodist Church, 7538 Main St. Information: 410-795-8959.