State tourism to tout arts, eco-friendly sites

It looks like an emphasis on eco-tourism and arts/culture will make Kevin Shibilski, the state’s new tourism secretary, different than his predecessor.

“I love the Packers, but there’s more to us than cheering them on and wearing cheesehead hats,” says the former Stevens Point senator, who this month will host his first Governor’s Conference on Tourism.

“We can compete with the Chicagos and San Antonios,” he says. “We have artists here. We have creative people. We have an exquisite setting and are hospitable. Plus we have a powerful work ethic.”

More than 1,000 tourism industry leaders are expected to hear Shibilski’s pep talk when they meet March 16-19 in Wisconsin Dells. They also will confront the consequences of seeing the state’s general budget for tourism likely cut to about $13 million for fiscal year 2004. The budget in fiscal 2002 was $15.2 million; now it’s about $13.5 million.

The promotions budget will take the hardest hit: “We’ll do more with less … place more emphasis on cooperative efforts,” Shibilski says. The budget was $11.6 million in 2001-02, then dropped to $10.5 million. The extent of additional cuts has not been decided.

He says the $1.13 million in Joint Effort Marketing (JEM) grants will be untouched, to allow communities large and small to continue identifying and packaging attractions in new ways.

“A lot of people think of Wisconsin as a one-dimensional destination, known for its outdoor recreation,” Shibilski says. “That is a part of our tourism soul, but we are more than that.”

Outreach has been his priority. In six weeks, he put more than 6,000 miles on the odometer and met with more than 50 cultural organizations (representing the film industry, fine arts, crafts, museums), spreading his Good Word like a disarming country preacher.

The tourism chief believes that people want intellectual stimulation when they travel — opportunities to learn, experience and be inspired. He contends his outlook and strategy have met little resistance.

“I’m into habitats,” Shibilski says. “We’re in an ecological tension zone, and people are turned on by that.”

The phrase describes the separation of northern plant and animal life from that in the south. It means some parts of the state — particularly its center, Shibilski’s home base — are rich with the diversity of nature.

Shibilski goes as far as calling it “one of the richest environments in North America.” He and his wife, Sue, are licensed bear guides who also have taken people on wolf tracking and fishing expeditions in the Phillips area. It is work he has done for about 20 years.

“There are more people who want to watch wildlife,” he contends, “and more who are interested in birding, hiking.” Although interest in fishing holds steady, he thinks the peak days of hunting are history.

So a part of Shibilski’s thinking is that what we take for granted needs proper packaging. He also likes the notion of surprising the natives who think they know Wisconsin well. That means making Madisonians aware of dog sled races in Park Falls, or framing the annual Birkebeiner ski race as an event for families as well as elite athletes.

He calls Hudson, a city of 10,000 near River Falls, “a little Greenwich Village tucked into northwestern Wisconsin,” then talks enthusiastically about its annual Hot Air Affair balloon festival.

It is the type of event “that becomes our insulation” against lack of snow in winter, and Shibilski is eager to talk up other examples. He is not discouraged by talk of war and says a shift in travel habits nationwide will work to Wisconsin’s advantage.

The state is perceived as safe because it lacks huge and high-profile metropolitan centers, Shibiliski says, and it is easy for Chicago and Minneapolis travelers to drive here.

Overall, people are taking more trips than before 9-11 terrorism, but the getaways are shorter in distance and duration. “The long weekend is the most popular unit of travel,” says Shibilski, who believes that — even in the best of weather — people want to do more than sit next to a lake or snowmobile during all their time away.

“People are looking for a blend of events, destinations and activities,” he says. “And that will help us package our identity as a state.”

Who does this well now? The people of Bayfield are one example, Shibilski says. The area “is beautifully preserved, with environmental protection and historic preservation as priorities.”

Interpretive hiking trails, natural history tours, local history museums, unusual shops and restaurants with local cuisine all are a part of the equation.

“A sense of awe, and a sense of place — that’s what we offer in spades.”

And from Shibilski’s seat, the more eclectic the mix, the better. He predicts fringe benefits.

“The more we talk about all that is Wisconsin, the more we can attract investment,” he says. “So we become the sales pitch for venture capital, and everybody benefits.”

We try hard to verify all information that comes our way, but occasionally something gets by us. Here are two examples.

The covered bridge at Red Mill, near Waupaca, is not the state’s oldest. That distinction apparently belongs to one in Ozaukee County, It is on the National Register of Historic Places and was built over Cedar Creek in 1876. To get there, look for Covered Bridge Road, near Highways 143 and 60, north of Cedarburg.

Also, the new “Guillotines and Champagne” ship-launching exhibit at the Door County Maritime Museum, Sturgeon Bay, will be in place one year longer than we previously stated. It goes until March 7, 2004.