Ex-Dr Pepper Town Seeks New Image to Boost Tourism

By Emily Schmall
|  Monday, Jul 7, 2014  |  Updated 10:14 AM CDT
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Ex-Dr Pepper Town Seeks New Image to Boost Tourism

Andrea Canterbury

Early leaders named the streets Patrick, Shannon and Erin to give a diverse Texas frontier town a sense of Irish identity.

Nonetheless, most of Dublin's nearly 3,900 residents believe the connection to Ireland's capital city is mythical, and that the town is named after the early settler expression "doublin' up" -- circling covered wagons at night to defend against Plains attackers.

But over the last century Dublin developed a distinctly different identity tied to its biggest tourist draw: Dr Pepper. With its famous sugar cane soft drink and the world's oldest Dr Pepper bottling plant, Dublin thrived on a merchandising bonanza that drew 90,000 people annually to the Central Texas town.

All of that is gone now.

More than two years after Dr Pepper cut ties with the local bottler over a licensing dispute, the town is trying to stabilize its economy by promoting its lesser-known claims to fame, from a festival highlighting its debatable Irish roots, to Dublin's bygone rodeo glories, to its location within the county Dairy Capital of Texas. The efforts exemplify how other communities across the country -- stripped of the iconic industry that put them on the map -- cast about for ways to redefine themselves and replace lost incomes.

"I guess we all felt like, `Let's get on down the road,"' said Karen Wright, executive director of the Dublin Economic Development Corporation. "Our new reality is not Dublin Dr Pepper. It's something different. We've got to define it. It's up to us."

Towns facing sluggish economies have gone about rebuilding notoriety in inventive ways.

Evans City, Pennsylvania, is planning its first-ever "Night of the Living Dead" festival, a month-long event next October to celebrate being the setting where the 1968 horror movie was filmed. In Newton, Iowa, an annual sculpture festival recently celebrated its 12th year as the community tries to recover from appliance maker Maytag's departure from its longtime hometown.

But Dublin without Dr Pepper is turning out to be a hard sell. At the annual summer festival in June -- the first since 1980 in which Dr Pepper's birthday was not celebrated -- the town saw how far its largest tourism event had fallen.

Five line dancers in tap shoes performed to a near-empty set of bleachers. The bicycle race was canceled after the organizers failed to show. An arts and crafts fair included only two stands. Food options were also slim: the Surfing Cowboy's Cajun shrimp on a stick or a Mexican taco truck.

"It just don't have the push that Dr Pepper had," 66-year-old resident Lion's Club president David Cleveland said as he surveyed the fair.

Dublin never worried about tourism revenue in the past. The early 1900s brought a railroad and the cotton trade, which prosperous families used to build elaborate Victorian mansions in this rural community 120 miles southwest of Dallas. Later, the surrounding dairy farms were big employers.

And Dublin had Dr Pepper. The local bottler used the classic formula of the soda sweetened with the traditional cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, which has become standard in soft drinks.

But in 2012, Dr Pepper Snapple Group announced it was ending its 120-year relationship with its oldest but smallest bottler, claiming the bottler had violated its licensing agreement by selling Dr Pepper abroad with an unauthorized logo.

Since then tourism has dropped by two thirds and many businesses shuttered.

Local leaders decided Dublin needed to promote other aspects of the community, and the local chamber of commerce has experimented with "repurposing" Dublin's obscure history.

"We're a big dairy area and a lot of places would do dairy events during dairy month, but since a lot of dairies are going under, they kinda stopped doing it," said Luanne Schexnider, who became president of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce shortly after Dr Pepper left.

Her current campaign involves handing out miniature PayDay candy bars at meetings of regional chambers of commerce and economic development officials. Attached are cards stating that all peanuts in PayDay bars were dry-roasted in Dublin.

To draw in extra money, Dublin also holds three days of festivities each March that include a parade, a Shamrock Queen pageant, a rodeo and a stew cook-off in honor of Ireland's patron saint.

And although much of the Dr Pepper signage that once adorned this town is gone, Dublin Bottling Works Inc. hasn't given up trying to recapture the lore of its past.

Chief Executive Bill Kloster is pushing a line of soda in glass bottles with retro flavors and labels in Texas grocery stores, maintaining his grandfather's decision to never use corn syrup.

Dr Pepper Snapple Group is now distributing its own cane-sugar sweetened Dr Pepper, but for the most devoted fans, Dublin's old-fashioned soda shop sells bottled syrup made with the Dublin Dr Pepper recipe.

"There's both a sense of disappointment and a sense of excitement in taking a 122-year-old company and trying to reinvent it," Kloster said.

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