COMMENTARY: Destination for hope

The year 2020 and the impact of a global health crisis have disrupted lives and communities in nearly every way — emotionally, financially, mentally and physically. A full recovery won’t happen overnight, but plans are already in place to rebuild our sense of community, boost our economy and help our citizens regain their livelihoods. It will take investment in our public spaces and a spirit of cooperation.

The good news for our residents is that cultural tourism is in for a big year ahead, and the projected trends are favorable for smaller communities such as ours.

Vacation Rentals by Owner, an American online marketplace for vacation rentals, recently released its 2021 trends report, which is based on U.S. survey results taken from more than 8,000 people. It revealed that travelers are eagerly planning to make up for lost time but with modified plans and destinations. According to the report:

_ 82% of families already have travel plans for 2021.

_ 59% of families say they’re more likely to drive instead of fly on their next trip.

_ 65% plan on traveling more than they did before the pandemic.

_ 33% are willing to spend more than they traditionally would.

Following this global pandemic, travelers may also opt for smaller towns with fewer crowds as opposed to large cities. While traveling preferences of tourists may shift after 2020, culture will still play a vital role in attracting tourists and boosting the local economy.

In a March 2018 report, the arts and culture industry contributed $67.5 billion to rural community economies, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additionally, research conducted by Bloomberg Philanthropies found consumers intend to visit cultural institutions once they reopen with outdoor attractions and venues that allow greater freedom of movement in higher demand. Think museums, botanical gardens, zoos and outdoor performance spaces.

Fortunately for the city of Brownsville, this could position our community atop many travel lists, which has been a goal of the Mitte Foundation with the Mitte Cultural District. The vision for the Mitte Cultural District is to play a big part in Brownsville’s appeal for both area families and visiting tourists. Never has the focus been more important to return spaces to the public while enhancing amenities to create memories, as well as educational and economic opportunities for all. With new enhancements anticipated to be complete next year, the Mitte Cultural District will attract tourism to boost the economy with support to local small businesses.

In a post-pandemic world, outdoor spaces will be key, which can be found in the list of improvements to the district. Those include an outdoor concert venue with built-in “grass berm” seating for 120 (plus room for an additional 300 open lawn spots in front of the stage), spaces for local food trucks to serve their cuisine and parking for 54 vehicles. The foundation has also collaborated with the Brownsville Health and Wellness Coalition to add more space for the Farmers Market. All in all, the Mitte Foundation has invested $5 million and counting here.

The district’s offerings even extend beyond that space. The Mitte Foundation and the Children’s Museum of Brownsville have partnered to help amplify educational programs available to young people and adults in Brownsville and its surrounding areas by expanding the museum. As part of a significant expansion plan, including the museum’s existing interior space, we also plan to develop the outdoor plaza area and the recently acquired Ringgold Civic Pavilion. The new Children’s Museum will encompass 35,000 square feet, becoming an appropriately sized museum to better serve a region of our size.

Planning has also begun on the construction of a new sister site in the form of the Brownsville Science Center, a 17,000-square-foot spacescience museum that will promote STREAM (Science, Technology, Research, Engineering, Art, and Math) concepts. Plans are also underway for the addition of an interactive “Rocket Park” for visitors to get a hands-on feel for the future. You might say we’re imagining how to propel learning opportunities into the stratosphere. Though they are in the early stages of planning, our hope is that residents and visitors to Brownsville will enjoy these new cultural amenities for generations to come.

As news circulates of multiple reliable vaccines for COVID-19, there’s a sense of hope we can soon climb out of an abysmal 2020 and enter the new year ready to work and play. To help make this a reality, we need the help of our city leaders, cultural district members, tourism stakeholders, vendors and anyone in the community invested in the future. With the people of Brownsville, our culture and diversity, together we will move forward to recovery, coming out even stronger than we were before.

Coleith Molstad is executive director of the Mitte Foundation and Felipe Peña is executive director of the Children’s Museum of Brownsville.