Quick: What’s the most popular tourist destination in Morris County?
The Ford Mansion, where George Washington spent the worst winter of the Revolution? Historic Speedwell, where the telegraph ushered in modern communications?
Maybe the Morristown Green, scene of a hanging for the Crime of the (19th) Century? Or the Morris Museum, home to one of the world’s greatest collections of automata? How about Craftsman Farms, with its famous Mission furniture?
Try Alstede Farms, the apple-picking orchard in Chester.
“They get a million visitors a year,” according to the county’s foremost tourism expert, Leslie Bensley.
Bensley is executive director of the Morris County Tourism Bureau, which this month celebrated its 20th anniversary, at a soirée at Morristown’s Kellogg Club.
Since launching the bureau on Court Street in Morristown with two part-timers and a shoestring budget, Bensley has helped forge a powerful economic engine for the county.
Visitors spent $2.2 billion in Morris last year, supporting $3.2 billion in business sales, nearly 30,500 jobs and $1.3 billion income, reported a May 2018 study by consulting firm Tourism Economics. That’s a four-fold increase since the Morris Tourism Bureau opened, Bensley’s records indicate.
Put another way, each Morris County household would be on the hook for an additional $1,318 annually to maintain present government services, if not for the $126 million of state taxes and $116 million in local taxes generated by tourism, the report stated.
Bensley credits this success to a crackerjack part-time staff of four (all women, she notes proudly); supportive trustees and an enthusiastic honorary chairman, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.); and a budget of about $550,000, from state and county grants and dues from 250 members.
Always seeking fun ways to make history come alive, Bensley and her team ordered up a sand sculpture of Washington with a football when the Super Bowl came to New Jersey.
They have brought first-rate impersonators of Washington, Hamilton and Lafayette to the Green, created Revolutionary Times Weekends and historic walking tours (with a phone app), and added information kiosks and new wayfaring signs to point visitors to landmarks across the county.
They also have sold historical Christmas ornaments and organized Holly Days museum tours, while transitioning from a quaint shop distributing pamphlets to a digital enterprise with multiple social media platforms and a shiny website.
When Hamilton exploded on Broadway, the Tourism Bureau helped promote the tiny Schuyler-Hamilton House, a Morristown site only open a few days per month. In 2017, attendance showed a six-fold spike from pre-Hamilton years.
The engine driving this engine, most observers testify, is Bensley.
“Leslie Bensley is the Morris County Tourism Bureau,” said Lois McClellan of the Morris County Park Commission.
“Her energy, her dedication, her enthusiasm, her ability to forecast future needs while serving current needs is unsurpassed,” McClellan said.
“Leslie is the cheerleader for Morris County. I can’t imagine this place without Leslie. It’s her personality that makes this place what it is,” said Carol Anton, who has worked on the Tourism Bureau staff for all but two of Bensley’s 20 years.
Frank Druetzler championed the bureau when he was a Morris County Freeholder two decades ago. Getting the board to pony up $10,000 for the startup wasn’t a hard a sell, he said.
“It’s something that was really needed. There’s so much history in such a a small area. People should know it,” he said, citing Morris County’s role in the American Revolution (Washington and the Continental Army wintered here twice) and the birth of telecommunications (the telegraph was developed in Morristown).
Druetzler, who is retiring after 32 years as mayor of Morris Plains, was a Bensley fan from the start.
“She has more energy than 50 people. You know that’s true. It’s very difficult to say no to Leslie, isn’t it? She’s a positive person, she has energy, she believes in what she’s doing.”
A native of Savannah, Ga., Bensley aspired to an acting career before finding her passion for tourism.
“I do enjoy it,” she acknowledged last week. “On a micro level, every day is different. You’re rarely bored.”