(Covered) Bridging Tourism and Economic Development

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When it comes to bridging tourism and economic development, one rural Indiana county has it covered – literally.

A covered bridge in Parke County, Ind. It is considered to be the “The Covered Bridge Capital of the World” and hosts an annual festival that attracts more than 1 million people annually.

Parke County, Indiana, is a scenic sanctuary nested in the heart of West Central Indiana. The county is located just over an hour from Indianapolis and three hours from Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, which is the north end of U.S. 41 that also runs through Parke County. The county is home to nearly 17,000 residents but attracts millions of visitors every year. That’s thanks to the incredible work of the Parke County Convention and Visitors Commission (CVC).

“Parke County is proudly known as ‘The Covered Bridge Capital of the World,’” said Doug Weisheit, marketing chair of the Parke County CVC. “We’re home to 31 historic covered bridges around the county. Also, areas such as Turkey Run State Park, Raccoon Lake and Shades State Park each offer their own unique natural beauty and appeal.”

A waterfall in Turkey Run State Park in Parke County, Ind. The County routinely attracts visitors throughout the year, supporting local business growth.

The Parke County CVC showcases the region’s natural allure and all the county offers. The organization creatively promotes the region’s natural wonders in collaboration with the annual Parke County Covered Bridge Festival, Indiana’s largest event of its kind that attracts more than 1 million people each year.

“We have to work together to make sure our story reaches people across Indiana, Illinois, and beyond,” Weisheit said. “The region is promoted on video, blogs, brochures, travel guides, social media, and has been named to several of Midwest Living Magazine’s ‘Best of’ lists.”

Their efforts seem to be paying off: Parke County has seen a record number of visitors in recent years. People interested in hiking, horseback riding, kayaking and fishing visit Turkey Run State Park for its incredible landscape and 14 miles of trails. Shades State Park is a more serene and peaceful spot, ideal for a hike alongside the sandstone cliffs overlooking Sugar Creek. Travelers seeking water fun visit Raccoon Lake, which draws more than 1 million visitors each summer.

The surge in visitors exploring Parke County’s natural wonders has breathed life into local businesses. Tourism is now the county’s second-largest industry, with some businesses growing to accommodate the tourists enjoying Parke County throughout the year. Parke County features nearly 350 Airbnb, VRBO and cabin rentals, along with independently operated hotels scattered near each state park.

Local organizations collaborate to “help balance the preservation of our parks’ natural wonders while meeting the growing needs of visitors and our local residents,” Weisheit said.

“We’re not just witnessing Parke County’s evolution. We want to shape a future where our communities, our county and our natural wonders thrive,” he added. “We want to be a place where everyone gets to experience what we have to offer.”