By Marion Filler
Picture an ideal place to live and it might look like Morris County. For many, it’s a green oasis with a direct commute to New York City, and enough culture, fine restaurants, top-notch medical facilities and good schools to offer fulfillment close to home.
Thanks to the Morris County Tourism Bureau, the county increasingly has become a destination for visitors as well.
Tourism Executive Director Leslie Bensley, who has been on the job since 1997, took the opportunity on Thursday to recognize two pillars of the community who have helped make Morris County a place where people want to be.
Kellie Doucette from Rep. Mikie Sherrill’s (D-11th Dist.) office was on hand at the Morris County Cultural Center in Mendham to present awards to honorees Jim Kutsch of The Seeing Eye and Dave Helmer, executive director of the Morris County Park Commission.
Jim and his wife Ginger enthralled tourists with a Seeing Eye walking tour around downtown Morristown that enabled them to see how blind owners interact with their guide dogs. According to Tourism tour coordinator and docent Carol Barkin, the tour sells out every year and is especially popular with children.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:
Established in Whippany in 1931, The Seeing Eye moved to Morris Township in 1965. Over the years, 17,000 sightless people have received their dogs from The Seeing Eye, said Kutsch, who is blind.
“I can tell you that Morris County is extremely well known among the blind community in both the U.S. and Canada, from coast to coast,” he told the audience, adding that “the streets, the community, the parks, the trails — everything is our training ground.”
Despite the nonprofit’s stellar reputation, not everyone is familiar with The Seeing Eye.
Kutsch recalled an incident about four years ago when he happened to overhear a tourist in a coffee shop. “He had obviously never been to Morris County and wanted to know, ‘How come there’s so many blind people with all these dogs around here?'”
Unable to resist, Kutsch replied: “Yeah, it’s the water.”
The second award recipient, Dave Helmer, is vice president of the Tourism Board in addition to running the Park Commission.
He joined the Commission in 1998 and now oversees 20,000 acres of parkland — the largest park system in New Jersey. It includes such historic sites as the Cooper Gristmill, Historic Speedwell, and the Fosterfields Living Historical Farm.
“Some of the most informative and creative public education programs that we offer visitors are held each year at these three historic sites,” said Barkin.
There are 240 miles of walking trails and, thanks to Helmer’s support, an extensive system of signs and kiosks that direct visitors to connecting trails and sites. Helmer also collaborated with the Tourism Bureau to stage July 4th fireworks at both Lewis Morris Park and Central Park of Morris County, spectacles enjoyed by several thousand viewers.
The Tourism Bureau is supported by 283 businesses, organizations, and individuals, and receives grants from the state and the Morris County Freeholders. Still, Bensley acknowledged, “it’s always a challenge, because we don’t have a stable source of funding.”
Headquartered at at 6 Court St. in Morristown, the Tourism Bureau is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Coming attractions include the Holly Walk, a perennial favorite. One ticket covers admission to seven historical sites, decked in holiday style, for three days, from Dec. 6-8, 2019.
Other popular events promoted by the Tourism Bureau include walking tours through Victorian Morristown for Downton Abbey fans, and the Juneteenth celebration of the proclamation abolishing slavery.
“It takes a small and dedicated village to make this happen,” Bensley said of Morris County’s tourism, “and we think it is worthy to invest in these endeavors because they raise everyone’s boat.”