Pawhuska and Waco: Home Town Tourism Booms, But at What Cost?

There’s The Merc. The Boarding House. P-Town Pizza. And coming soon, P.W. Steakhouse. Plus, you can tour The Ranch. For a town with a population of 3,477 people, it seems like an awful lot of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, is part of The Pioneer Woman empire.

Ree Drummond’s Pioneer Woman lifestyle brand has been a boon for the small Oklahoma town. 6000 people visit The Mercantile retail store on an average day and on a busy day that number can jump to as many as 15,000. They wait in line for three hours to eat in the restaurant and for the chance to maybe see the Food Network star.

Pioneer Woman
Instagram: The Pioneer Woman Mercantile

Ree and Ladd Drummond’s new eight-room hotel The Boarding House is already booked for a solid year. Their new restaurant, which they announced as they opened P-Town Pizza, will be reservations only and you can bet that will be booked far in advance, too.

The family also offers free tours of The Lodge and the Drummond Ranch, a great place to eat a picnic and explore the grounds.

These businesses have translated into more jobs in the town. The Drummonds’ company employs over 200 people — they are now the second largest employer in Osage County, right after the Native American Osage Nation.

What happens in a town when almost double the number of people who live there visit every day? More tourists generally means additional jobs and more revenue, but it also means more cars, more hassle for residents just trying to get around town, and the potential that it could all fall apart. Tying your town’s long term success to a lifestyle brand means knowing how to ride a bucking bronco, but luckily, that’s a skill familiar to folks in these parts.

A Town’s Revitalization

In large cities it’s called gentrification; that is, well-off people (usually younger) moving into previously undesirable parts of town and renovating the houses and buildings, which results in more business moving in, but also the people who lived in that area for decades being driven out due to higher costs of everything.

In small towns, like Pawhuska, Oklahoma, it’s revitalization. The town, once a wealthy center of oil production, saw much of its business dry up in the 1980s. Like so many other small towns across the United States, small mom and pop businesses were driven out of business by big box stores and discount retailers. The quaint downtown rarely saw many pedestrians, much less busloads of visitors.

That all changed in October of 2016. Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman with the long-running cooking show (currently in its 19th season), popular cookbooks, and legions of fans, opened up The Pioneer Woman Mercantile in downtown Pawhuska. From its opening day, The Merc, as it’s known, drew tens of thousands of visitors all looking for a chance to experience a little bit of the Drummonds’ lifestyle.

All of the sudden, the sleepy little town had crowds of people coming in for a day or two, walking through downtown, and looking for things to do while they waited on a spot in The Merc’s dining room or after their meal. Businesses near The Merc saw a rise in foot traffic and sales.

A story in the Oklahoma Horizon quoted Cathi Ball, a downtown business owner, who said, “They are standing in line, and while they are standing in line, one person holds the place in line, and the rest of them come shop.”

A story in the Tulsa World written on the one-year anniversary of The Mercantile’s opening noted that 20 new businesses opened up in Pawhuska during that first year. Hotels and inns are booked months in advance and more are being planned.

Generally speaking, this revitalization has been a boon for the small town. The town has seen increased sales tax revenue of around $20,000 a month since The Mercantile opened, an amount that makes a huge difference to local infrastructure and city services. New businesses are opening up and old buildings are being renovated, including some like the historic Triangle Building which was in danger of being torn down before developers started working to turn it into a hotel.

The Magnolia Boom

Pioneer Woman, Magnolia Silos
Instagram: Magnolia Market

But Pawhuska isn’t the only lifestyle boom town — Waco, Texas, has also seen a jump in tourism brought on by the several businesses Joanna and Chip Gaines have opened in the city.

According to The USA Today, Magnolia Market averages about 30,000 visitors per week. Waco, a city with a population of around 135,000 people and home to Baylor University, isn’t a tiny, unknown town by any means. There are several tourist attractions, such as the Dr. Pepper Museum and the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. But the Gaines’ Magnolia Market, and subsequent businesses like Magnolia Table, have definitely had an impact on increase of road trip visitors.

“But tourism officials say the spinoff has been dizzying. Attendance at Waco-area attractions is estimated to be 2.6 million this year, a fourfold increase over 2015, the Convention and Visitors Bureau reports. Hotel occupancy rates in the second quarter of 2017 were 75.5%, the second-highest in the state, and hundreds of new hotel rooms are under development.”

TripAdvisor named Waco their #2 top place “Destinations on the Rise” for 2018, but the list of lifestyle brand tourist stops keeps growing. Smithsonian Magazine named Laurel, Mississippi, one of their 20 best small towns to visit in 2018. If you watch HGTV, you know about Laurel. It’s the setting of the new hit show Home Town, starring Erin and Ben Napier. While the only business the Napiers own right now is the Laurel Mercantile, their brand is built around the town, so fans who want to connect are visiting Laurel to experience that life.

Will the success of these lifestyle brands continue to drive tourism to their stars’ hometowns? And how much is too much?

Sustainability

Right now, at least, if Ree or Chip and Joanna build it, they will come. But just how many Pioneer Woman or Magnolia restaurants or stores can one town handle? Is tourism built on a lifestyle brand truly sustainable?

There is also a question of other challenges that come with the increase in visitors. Parking is an issue, as are rising property taxes and rents for local businesses. And especially in a small town like Pawhuska, getting around the tourist traffic to just run errands can be an issue.

Neither town has reached over-saturation yet, at least not in terms of what visitors will stand in line for. No one is really sure where the line of “too much” is just yet and it most likely won’t be clear until the line has been crossed. Sure, some people who hear about another restaurant or home design line might be turned off. But if we’re a nation that will join the line up weekend after weekend to watch the latest superhero movie, we’re a nation that can support a few more stores that feature cast iron and shiplap.

However, all good things must end, and the towns that are home to these lifestyle brands know it. A television show has a finite lifetime and not all television-based brands find continued success after the show is off the air. For example, there’s some worry that Waco may suffer a decline in popularity with the end of the Gaines’ show Fixer Upper.

The key for towns like Pawhuska and Waco is to find a way forward that balances the “lightning in a bottle” effect of a popular lifestyle brand with long term sustainability. As a larger city with a university, Waco is better insulated against any potential disruptions of the brand focus on the city. Pawhuska, though, is keenly aware of what could happen. Pawhuska School Board President Mike Tolson told the Tulsa World:

“We have the straw that stirs the drink, right, the Merc? As a community, we have to be prepared to leverage that. We have to create other opportunities to take advantage of the attention, the crowds and everything else that is going on so that when we look back in 10 years, we aren’t left with, ‘Well, wasn’t that a great time in our community’s life?'”

He envisions a future where agritourism is a key attraction of the area and visitors can visit for other activities such as bike riding and craft beer.

In the short term, lifestyle brand tourism is great for the brands’ home towns. The longer term effect remains to be seen, but in places like the Pioneer Woman’s Pawhuska, they’re determined not to waste the chance they’ve been given to grow into something bigger than the brand.

Watch: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About the Pioneer Woman.