Can Demopolis become another Fairhope?

Thursday night, a group of Demopolis downtown merchants heard Fairhope Mayor Timothy Kant tell his city’s remarkable story.

Kant visited the City of the People at the behest of Mayor Mike Grayson, who occasionally gets asked by a segment of the citizenry, “Why can’t we be like Fairhope?”

That’s a fair question, in the sense that a community should aim high if it’s looking to transform itself. Of course, the real question is: does Demopolis want to transform itself?

The downtown merchants group is currently trying to answer that question. The unofficial body has met at least three times brainstorming for ways to revitalize the city – particularly the downtown area.

The key word here is “revitalize”, and the group’s next step should be to define exactly what that term means for our city.

Does it involve beautifying downtown? Holding more events? Bringing in more business? Or transforming Demopolis from a tourist stop to a tourist destination?

The last item on that list is the trickiest. Demopolis is already an attractive tourist stop, and the Chamber of Commerce and others have done an admirable job promoting the city as such. To morph into a tourist destination, though, requires a total commitment to that concept by the entire community and – to a degree – handing over the city to outsiders in exchange for the considerable amounts of money they are willing to spend. It means reshaping the town, its image and its way of life, forever. That can be good or bad.

A true tourist destination is not a tourist destination…and something else. Its lifeblood is tourist dollars, plain and simple, and everyone from the mayor to every single business owner, hotel housekeeper, convenience store cashier and waiter or waitress knows it. Hence, the tourist (and the transplanted retiree, who is a quasi-tourist) is made to feel not just welcome, but special. Towns like Helen, Ga., Natchez, Miss. and Fairhope come to mind.

Can Demopolis be a Fairhope? Of course not. Then again, Fairhope cannot be a Demopolis. The assets are different. Fairhope has a bay, has one main thoroughfare in and out, and has an interesting history. Demopolis has a river, is located at the crossroads of two major U.S. highways, and has a deeper, richer history.

Fairhope is a tourist destination, while Demopolis is one part tourism, one part industry, one part retail hub and one part sports and recreation hotbed.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being multi-faceted, if that’s what a community wants. Nor is there anything wrong with being a tourist destination. The critical question for Demopolis thus becomes, “What do we want to be?”

The downtown merchants group deserves a tip of the cap for bringing that very question to the fore.