The new executive director for the Gonzales Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture, Melissa Henderson, is familiar with the allure of heritage tourism and how it could benefit a community like Gonzales.
Henderson’s first day of work at the Chamber was Monday, June 27 as she came from a similar position at the Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce in West Texas.
“Coming from an economy (Fort Davis) that was driven by tourism, I'm very familiar with tourism, what a tourist looks like, as well as heritage tourism,” Henderson said. “Gonzales is similar to Fort Davis in that heritage tourism is the draw. And it's all about the history, and not just any history, but Texas history, and the two are really tied together.
“The fort in Fort Davis was established to protect travelers along the San Antonio trail, so people were literally coming from Gonzales and making their way across Texas. And Fort Davis was there for them.”
The opportunity to work for a larger Chamber drew Henderson to Gonzales and it didn’t hurt that her aunt and uncle live in Gonzales as well.
“Fort Davis is a very small community and we probably had 100 Chamber of Commerce members,” Henderson said. “The entire county, Fort Davis County, is actually unincorporated. There is not a city or municipality, and county wide, the whole population is about 2,500 people. It is a small, very, very rural community, so there's a lot of room for my career to grow in this position here in Gonzales.
“The reason I knew the position was open is because my aunt and uncle live here. My aunt Cynthia Green is the dietician at the hospital and she showed me the position was open. Originally, I'm from Slayton, outside of Lubbock.”
The Chamber of Commerce is negotiating with the city of Gonzales to oversee tourism for the city and to take on a larger part of managing the city’s hotel occupancy tax and tourism promotion.
Henderson said she likes to think about the historical aspect in connection with tourism and is familiar with the demographics for heritage tourism in Texas and “how to get that demographic to come here.”
“First of all, it tends to be older males, which is great because they tend to have money and go out to eat and stay in hotels, so they're really good tourists,” Henderson said. “So let's get more of them visiting Gonzales, bringing their families and wives and staying in our hotels and going out to eat and spending money.”
Henderson agrees with the assessment that Gonzales should be a sought-after location to visit for Texas history.
“This should be it, I mean, this is Texas history,” Henderson said. “We are the original, we’re the OG of Texas history. I spoke with Mayor (Steve) Sucher and he told me about some of the big historical dates we have coming up, some big years for Texas history. As part of a long-term vision, Gonzales should be at the forefront, a leader in those historical events for the whole state of Texas.”
Henderson said she is excited about getting to know “all of the Chamber members” in Gonzales.
“Coming from a small Chamber of Commerce to a Chamber of Commerce that has 500 members is a big thing,” Henderson said. “And there's huge manufacturing companies, really big companies, in Gonzales. I really look forward to learning about them taking tours and really investing in and getting to know the businesses, not just the small businesses, but also our huge businesses, as well as some of the bigger businesses that are in the region.”
One of the first events Henderson and her four young daughters will get to enjoy in Gonzales is the annual Come and Take It celebration, which will be held Sept. 30 through Oct. 2.
“We have a committee meeting next week, so I have a lot of questions about what the Chamber does to put on that event, but of course, Martha (Jimenez, the Chamber’s administrative assistant) is just on it,” Henderson said. “I’ve already met Daisy (Scheske Freeman, who is chair of this year’s festival) and I love doing event planning as well.”
Chamber members and the public can meet and greet Henderson at the next Chamber mixer at 5 p.m. Thursday, July 28, at the Chamber office at 304 St. Louis Street.