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Spotlight /Gloucester County: Drawing Interest

by Victoria Moorhouse
Even in a shaky economy, one industry in Gloucester County—tourism—has seen a surprising boom in business.

It’s happy hour at Heritage Vineyards in Mullica Hill, and the parking lot, surrounded by acres of picturesque farmland, is jam-packed. Joyful music blares from a live band set up outside, while wine aficionados from near and far sit comfortably enjoying glasses of New Jersey wine, plates of appetizers in hand.

“It sounded different, someplace a little different than what we are used to. We wanted to try someplace new,” says Amy Rafter, a first-time visitor to the winery. “It’s more outdoorsy: it’s a change of pace, instead of the hustle and bustle of a city.”

Rafter and her companion, Rick McDaniels, discovered Heritage through an online deal, and decided to give it a shot. The proprietors are glad they came—but even happier that they came from nearby Camden County. That’s because it’s out-of-area tourists like Rafter and McDaniels that are propelling a recent tourism boomlet in Gloucester County. In fact, the county has become the state’s dark-horse leader in tourism growth, with a 6.63 percent gain in tourist spending from 2008 to 2010.

Marked by extensive farmlands, county roads and small-town charm, the county may not fulfill the stereotype of a South Jersey tourism destination. But beaches, boardwalks and casinos aren’t the only attractions that can draw a crowd, notes Gloucester County Freeholder Heather Simmons. “More people are coming here to take advantage of our robust agritourism, the equine industries, historic sights and wineries,” she says. And as agritourism picks up steam across the country—the average small farm’s income from tourism increased from $7,200 in 2002 to $24,300 in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—bucolic Gloucester County is perfectly poised to capitalize on the nationwide trend.

Last year alone, that tourist traffic injected $511 million into the county economy—representing a $90.5 million increase over the past two years, according to Simmons, who is also liaison to the economic development department. While that revenue total is far less than the $10.6 billion grossed by tourism leader Atlantic County last year, tourist spending in Atlantic County declined 3.9 percent in 2010.

Gloucester County’s ability to buck that trend is striking news for a county that, in the past, hasn’t even had a dedicated budget to promote its attractions. But as county residents and those from the surrounding areas look to affordable “staycations” as a way to take a break despite reduced means, they’re giving local businesses a second look. Among those are 69 agricultural farms including pick-your-own favorites, 35 horse farms and five wineries—producing wines that an increasing number of consumers actually want to drink. There are also historic sites like Red Bank Battlefield Park and annual attractions like the Swedesboro Jazz Festival, the New Jersey Peach Festival and Gloucester County Water Fest.

“We started coming down here about nine months ago. We found the winery just driving around,” says Camden County resident Trish Lubansky, who was on her 10th visit to Heritage Vineyards. Lubansky says the word-of-mouth marketing has been impressive: she was also referred to the destination by a neighbor and by her son.

Loyal return visitors like Lubansky have been an economic boon to the county, which is still grappling with a 10-percent unemployment rate. “It’s given us a whole different light in Gloucester County, as far as attracting a different group of people and making it a destination,” says Les Vail, president and chief executive of the Gloucester County Chamber of Commerce.

Marsha and Ed Gaventa, owners of the newly established Cedarvale Winery in Swedesboro, have seen a small increase in visitors from outside the area, including Pennsylvanians stopping over for a tasting on their way to the beach. Just as important though, is an increasing “buy local” mentality. “People are supporting their local business, [and] they want to help each other out,” says Marsha Gaventa. “People enjoy being out on the farm. They enjoy supporting their local farmers.”

Vail agrees: “We are looking to do everything to promote, ‘Buy local, stay local.’ Having people stay close to home is a good thing for Gloucester County.”

Wineries in the area, including Cedarvale, Heritage and Franklinville’s Coda Rossa Winery, are collaborating to expand their reach through promotional and marketing plans such as the Passport Sweepstakes run by the New Jersey Grape Growers Association.

Customers who register online for a passport and visit every winery in the state receive a gift and the chance to win a trip to Tuscany. “The Passport is absolutely fantastic. It’s a great promotional tool,” Gaventa adds. “We have repeated people because of the passports.”

These promotional efforts are targeted regionally for the most part. As Simmons notes, most tourists aren’t generally visiting for prolonged stays, but more often for weekend, family trips.

Key to becoming a strong family destination has been variety: visitors can choose from attractions like the Bridgeport Speedway and the DREAM Park Equestrian Center, which, since opening in 2008, has helped direct a chunk of the $1.1 billion economic impact of the New Jersey equine industry into the county. Now, the county is also looking at secondary attractions designed to keep visitors in town for longer, including free concerts and movies throughout the summer. “We are continuing to make the region aware of what we have to offer in terms of day trips, weekend trips, places to eat and places to stay,” says Simmons.

After all, those in the hospitality industry stand to gain from the increased popularity of local attractions. “I am hoping to capture some of that business,” says Denise Costantino, owner of The Candlehouse Inn in South Harrison Township. Costantino operates the inn as a farmhouse bed and breakfast, and even offers field board for those traveling with horses. On the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats, Costantino says, “We have connected with a couple of the wineries and left our brochures there. When people come to our bed and breakfast, we have a whole table of brochures.”

And as more tourists from this region and beyond rediscover Gloucester County as a viable vacation destination, local attractions expect that there will be plenty of business to go around.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 7 (July, 2011).
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