The idea of converting the old train depot on Morris Street into a museum would make a wonderful project for a bold, visionary individual or group of PRIVATE citizens to sink their money into. Whether it’s a good idea for taxpayers to foot the bill for such a proposition is another thing entirely.

Refurbishing the depot (and possibly other nearby buildings as well) for use is one of the possibilities raised by a “citizens committee” looking at ways to reinvigorate Old Downtown. An idea that the committee seems to favor, and one that has other proponents, is that the depot is a logical site for a museum dedicated to the history of the carpet industry in Northwest Georgia, from the early “chenille era” to today’s massive global industry.

For many of us who live here and whose lives are intertwined with King Carpet, a facility like that might well hold considerable interest. (Then again, maybe not.)

But do we really think Joe Average, tooling down I-75 at 65 mph (hopefully), is going to interrupt his sojourn to visit a carpet museum? Throw in a two-headed goat and some chimpanzees and we might stir up some interest, but the idea that there is a potential horde of tourists interested in the evolution of creeling strikes me as navel gazing.

How many times have you passed a sign on the interstate proudly announcing the Whatever Museum at the next exit? How many times have YOU stopped?

And I don’t think it’s a matter of jazzing up the show. Two-headed goats and interactive 3-D exhibits aside, it would take a lot to pull busy folks (and we all think of ourselves as busy) off I-75 for an afternoon in downtown Dalton.

The fact is museums almost always lose money. Big ones and little ones.

Usually what keeps them in operation is a government handout justified by some combination of community pride and sometimes spurious claims of “economic development.”

Certainly many local residents are proud of the carpet industry. But does that justify substantial investment of tax dollars? The fiscal conservative in me would say no. Would local taxpayers already subsidizing the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center, another venue that was supposed to draw flocks of cash-laden visitors here, be happy with another drain on tax coffers?

The “economic investment” argument often receives a lot more merit than it deserves. For instance, an attraction that draws people from the immediate area doesn’t have much real overall economic impact. Switching dollars that might have been spent on Walnut Avenue or Cleveland Highway to Hamilton Street doesn’t benefit the business community in general, though it may well benefit business owners in the “targeted” area.

But why is “helping” business on Hamilton Street more important than helping businesses on Glenwood Avenue?

An attraction is of real benefit when it brings in dollars from outside the area, dollars that would not have been spent there at all.

For many communities the idea of increased tourism is seen as a magical elixir. That’s because they believe investing in tourism is cheaper than trying to lure manufacturing plants and because it’s a “clean industry” with little pollution and limited infrastructure demands. Tourism also tends to complement, not compete with, many existing businesses.

But more than a few communities have failed miserably trying to jump start tourism.

There is tremendous competition for entertainment dollars and no guarantees of success in the marketplace. You better have a great product to market or be ready to take the economic consequences.

What seemed like a great revenue-generating idea at the start does not look so great when it has to go on government life support (tax subsidies) to keep the lights on.

The efforts of local citizens to improve Old Downtown is laudable. Their ideas, energy and effort can prove invaluable. But when it comes to spending tax dollars, everyone involved – particularly elected officials – needs to proceed very cautiously.

A few suggestions on matters of encouraging tourism:

• Remember, someone is always willing to gamble someone else’s money, particularly the taxpayers’.

• Don’t think you can outsmart the free market.

• Ask hard questions that make people uncomfortable, particularly experts and officials.

• Challenge “assumed” wisdom.

• Does a plan benefit a handful of people or the greater community?

• Carefully define goals. How do you determine “successful” policy?

• Be realistic about possible results.

• Most importantly, call a bad idea a bad idea and walk – no, run – away.

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