Salem hoping to expand its image beyond
SALEM, Mass. (AP) A witch flies on the side of this city's police cruisers, swoops past the local paper's masthead and leads Salem High into battle as its mascot. This is undeniably the ''Witch City,'' even if not all residents are comfortable about renown rooted in the evil of the Salem witch trials of 1692.
But some wonder if it's time for Salem to expand its reputation beyond witch hysteria, and the kitschy spook industry that's grown up around it.
Now, tourism leaders have hired a marketing consultant, the first step in a campaign to retool the city's image by focusing on its significant, but lesser known, cultural assets.
Mark Minelli of Boston's Minelli Inc. points out that Salem has the House of Seven Gables made famous by the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name along with abundant Federal-period architecture and an engaging seaport past. It also has momentum from a $125 million renovation of the Peabody Essex Museum that has turned it into a major draw.
No one wants to whitewash the witch, Minelli said, but efforts must be made to attract a different kind of tourist one who will stay longer, spend more money and make tourism less dependent on the annual flood of Halloween visitors.
''You can't expand upon it,'' Minelli said. ''It doesn't have another dimension.
''If you don't say anything about the witch for the next 100 years, it would still be there,'' he added. ''It's the 500-pound gorilla in the middle of the room that you don't need to talk about.''
Christian Day, a practicing witch and host of Salem's Halloween-time ''Festival of the Dead,'' said de-emphasizing Salem's spooky side is as good as trying to kill it. It's an attempt to change Salem's image by those ashamed of history and snobbish about Halloween tourists he said have been described to him as ''T-shirt wearing zeros.''
''A lot of people don't want Salem associated with a negative blot on history, even if it draws people by the thousands,'' Day said.
Salem attracts about 800,000 people annually, according to counts at its visitor center, and at least another 200,000 who never check in there, said Carol Thistle of Destination Salem, which promotes local tourism.
The Halloween season accounted for 20 to 25 percent of all tourist visits between 1996 and 2001 more recent statistics were not available and brings in more than its share of dollars. For instance, $30 million of the estimated $90 million in tourist dollars spent in Salem in 2000 were spent in October, according to figures provided by Destination Salem.
No one takes the Halloween boom for granted, said Mark Meche of the Salem Main Street Initiative, which promotes downtown businesses. It's what happens after Oct. 31 that's the problem.
Monthly tourist visits generally don't reach six figures again until midsummer. In the meantime, some fright purveyors make so much money in October that their attractions are all but abandoned until the next fall not ideal for any business district.
''That is the worst aspect of this whole thing,'' said Meche, a local architect. ''It's so acutely seasonal. ... Part of our mission is to extend the shopping season.''
A key to expansion plans is the renovation of the Peabody Essex Museum, which featured the piece by piece transplantation of a home from rural China to Salem. Museum spokesman Greg Liakos said attendance has tripled, from 65,000 to about 200,000, in the six months since the June opening, compared to previous years.
''It's an opportunity we'd be crazy to waste,'' Minelli said.
The museum draws the kind of culture-seeking tourists who can be redirected to lesser-known historic sites, he said from the 1797 replica merchant vessel Friendship, docked at Salem's waterfront, to a collection of Federal period homes lining Chestnut Street, touted by locals as one of the most beautiful streets in the world. They can spend their extended stay in a new hotel, currently under construction.
Minelli's marketing proposal, with the theme ''if you think you know Salem, think again,'' extends beyond tourism, with business and real estate leaders encouraged to help promote Salem as a good place to live and work.
That kind of coordinated outreach to a new audience simply hasn't been done, said Thistle, who said Minelli's initial presentation to local leaders cost $25,000, and at least $100,000 will be needed for a future marketing campaign.
Day said he's all for promoting Salem's hidden attributes, but added that it's a waste of money if they ignore the one thing that makes it unique the Salem witch trials. Boston is just a few miles away and offers as much, if not more, architecture and history, not to mention the Museum of Fine Arts.
''You will never compete with Boston, you just won't,'' Day said.
Bob Murch, creator of Cryptique, a Ouija board dubbed ''the spirit board of Salem, Massachusetts,'' said a distaste for the Halloween industry including traffic jams and a belief that it exploits a tragedy has led to an identity crisis.
''I think there are those that don't realize that most of the money they bring in is because of something they hate,'' he said. ''You don't kill the past because you hate it. ... Salem is 1692.''
Meche said that while some residents hate all things Halloween, others simply want a better balance of tourism.
Liakos said the much of the kitsch associated with Salem's horror industry vampires, werewolves, haunted houses, etc. has nothing to do with the actual witch hysteria, when 20 people were executed and more than 200 imprisoned.
''When (the witch history) is used for the wrong reasons, it can be damaging,'' Liakos said.
Paul Durand, an architect and incoming head of the Chamber of Commerce, said Salem's witch-related industry will thrive even as the city focuses on promoting its other historic assets. But he said people don't want any more of it.
''You don't want to live in Disneyland,'' he said. ''You want to visit, but you don't want to live there.''
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