- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

PORTLAND, Pa. (AP) - A flotilla of rafts and inner tubes has been collecting dust in the former Portland Outfitter for six years. The river adventurers they were intended for start their trips in Poconos resorts upstream of this sleepy Delaware River borough. Instead, the kayakers and canoists come ashore here only long enough to dry off before heading back.

It’s frustrating to see an economic opportunity float by just out of reach, said Mayor Lance Prator, the borough’s most vocal cheerleader. He’s convinced that if an investor or two sticks around long enough, they’ll come to appreciate the river town’s scenic beauty.

“In 30 seconds, you can drive through the town,” he said. “You’ve got to stop and smell the roses. You’ve got to stop and smell Portland.”

Tourists soon may set their sights on Portland and other riverside communities between Easton and Hancock, N.Y., under a geotourism project steered by the National Parks Conservation Association and National Geographic.

The Scenic, Wild Delaware River project is attempting to unify business leaders and tourism promoters surrounding the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River - national parks that touch nine counties in three states. Using an interactive website designed by National Geographic, the program intends to attract wealthy travelers seeking authentic experiences such as local festivals, historical sites and outdoor recreation without disrupting the culture or geography that make the region unique.

“We’re all about geography, and our mission is to inspire people to care about the planet,” said James Dion, National Geographic’s sustainable tourism program director.

Their main tool, at least to start, will be the Scenic, Wild Delaware River website.

Thanks to a $645,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation, organizers have two years to get the program up and running. If it gets results, businesses and tourism officials can look to fund the program on their own or find other marketing opportunities for the region, said Bryan Cope, Northampton County’s open space coordinator and a member of the project’s stewardship committee.

So far, enthusiasm has exceeded expectations. The committee received 700 nominations for businesses, activities and events when it was hoping for 300.

The website will carry the National Geographic brand and, in turn, the National Geographic website will promote the program, along with about 10 others it has launched, some with the National Parks Conservation Association.

Carl Wilgus, president of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, witnessed the partnership’s efforts at Yellowstone National Park when he was a state tourism director in Idaho in the 1980s. While the park needed no help luring tourists, the communities on its fringes did. That’s where the program was focused, he said, on boosting those economies.

The programs rely on local people sharing their stories and experiences on the website. Places and activities that can’t be found anywhere else - traditional foods, family-owned venues, rare geology, unique history - are highlighted. Rather than send a tourist to yet another McDonald’s, the site tries to point would-be tourists to a local favorite with a colorful history and a signature dish. People now can go to the Scenic, Wild Delaware River website and nominate their favorite spots.

The project’s most prominent attraction is the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the 70,000-acre park that spans five counties in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In 2014, its scenic views, trails and boating activities drew a little more than 4 million visitors, who pumped $194 million into the local economy and supported more than 2,000 jobs, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

The park serves as an important cog in the local economy, but there may be room for growth, Wilgus said. While one-third of the jobs in the Poconos rely on the $3 billion tourism industry, the region’s hotel rooms average a 60 percent occupancy rate. A huge chunk of that is tied to the Pocono Raceway and ski resorts, but the natural beauty of the park, the Delaware River and the Appalachian Trail could attract another subset of tourists, Wilgus said.

The goal isn’t to just bring more people into the main attractions, but to showcase the hidden gems of the region, Wilgus said. The quiet, scenic spots would lose their allure if crammed full of tourists, and establishments off the beaten trail would still be left on the margins. Instead, the hope is to market the entire region and promote some favorite destinations that have otherwise been overlooked.

“Shame on us if we don’t represent those smaller, underserved businesses and tell their story. In many ways, those are the more compelling stories,” Wilgus said.

The main question is how effective the project will be. It’s not a question with an easy answer, said Michael Stershic, president of Discover Lehigh Valley.

While his tourism organization has worked to promote individual outdoor locations such as Hawk Mountain, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and the Trexler Nature Preserve, there hasn’t been an effort to market the region as a destination for people looking to get in touch with nature, he said. There’s little data about how many people already visit the region for its outdoor recreation, which makes it hard to set benchmarks that will determine if the website is reaching its target audience.

“The best we can do is to figure that a certain percentage of those who visit the site will become visitors and work backward from there. You will probably spend more money to measure this thing than to implement it,” Stershic said.

It’s a question that other geotourism programs have pondered.

The Heart of the Continent program, which markets northeast Minnesota and the southern border of Ontario, Canada, has been active for a year, and program leaders haven’t found a way to measure its success, said Mary Somnis, tourism and marketing official with the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, a Minnesota development agency.

That hasn’t weakened enthusiasm for the project, though. Anecdotal accounts from business owners point toward progress, and the project has improved relations within the tourism industry, Somnis said. The Heart of the Continent website has banded together people divided by terrain and international borders with a common purpose. The fact that they’re still willing to pay for the website a year later is a good indication, she said.

“We’re happy that we’re doing this. Everyone involved believes it’s a winning proposition. It’s a great partnership,” Somnis said.

Stershic and Wilgus see similar developments here. The river, which has served as a line of demarcation for state agencies, economic development groups and municipalities, can now draw people together for a common purpose.

Ironically, the river that Portland is pinning its hopes to is the same one that devastated its small Main Street during three consecutive years of flooding in the mid 2000s. The floods sank staples such as Kramer’s Hardware and the Portland Diner, establishments that the borough’s 516 residents depended on. Years later, many of the Main Street shops are still boarded up, even though the borough and interstate agencies have taken steps to reduce the risk of future floods.

The aging, blue-collar community once had no need to lure visitors. They came naturally on the railroad that cut through town and the covered bridge that area farmers used to drive cattle to and from New Jersey. While flooding has washed away the covered bridge and much of the borough’s history, remnants remain, including the recently restored Portland Pokey - a 19th-century structure that once held the council’s chambers and a one-room jail cell.

Portland’s forebears left another gift - the anchors of the old covered bridge, which now support a pedestrian bridge offering majestic views of the Delaware Water Gap.

And despite its economic troubles, the borough remains home to Duckloe & Bros., which has been making Windsor chairs on the banks of the Delaware River since before the Civil War.

With such assets, Prator believes Portland can become a popular weekend destination for antiquers and day-hikers. With its access to the river, nearby trails, Interstate 80 and scenic country roads, the borough has what it takes, Prator believes, to become a magnet such as New Hope or Frenchtown, downstream communities with thriving business districts.

“We’re living with a gold mine in our backyard. It’s time we started using it,” he said.

Prator hasn’t called for a massive redevelopment that would reshape the borough. He believes a few new businesses to cater to the hikers and kayakers already moving through the area would make a world of difference.

Open a bed and breakfast. Add a restaurant that’s open past 3 p.m. Start another canoe rental shop. His wish list won’t make Portland an international destination, but it could draw enough outdoors enthusiasts to buoy the borough’s economy.

“This building should be the hub of activity in Portland,” Prator said, staring through the window of Portland Outfitters at the dust-covered rafts. “Instead, it’s sitting here vacant.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/22bA7Qh

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Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com

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