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Cascade Highlands unites Va., N.C.

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In a move unprecedented in the Southeast, nine counties across two states have come together to promote themselves as a single tourism entity.

The area has been branded Cascade Highlands for the way the Blue Ridge Highlands of southwest Virginia cascade into the Yadkin Valley of northwest North Carolina.

Participating Virginia counties include Carroll, Grayson, Patrick and Smyth, along with the City of Galax. The North Carolina counties are Alleghany, Stokes, Surry, Wilkes and Yadkin.

Visitors can experience a lot in the Cascade Highlands. The region includes the Blue Ridge Parkway, Crooked Road Music Trail, Yadkin Valley Wine Region, Blue Ridge Wine Trail, Pilot Mountain State Park, Hanging Rock State Park, New River Trail, New River State Park, Swan Creek Wine Region, Hungry Mother State Park and the Appalachian Trail.

This unique initiative is the brainchild of Dr. Jim Harrell, an Elkin, N.C., dentist and Surry County commissioner. Harrell grew up in Surry, worked summers as a ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway and has family throughout the Cascade Highlands.

"We have a really beautiful area. And it just struck me that if we got the area together, we could market it at a much higher level than any one entity could on its own," Harrell said.

Harrell serves as chairman of the Cascade Highlands. The vice chair is Donnie Turner, tourism director for Carroll County.

"Any time you can work with regional tourism and marketing partners, and all have such a positive attitude, it's a big plus," said Turner, "Especially on two sides of the border."

The organization received a boost in late 2008 when Brandon McCann was named executive director. McCann is a Surry native who left a position as tourism director in another N.C. county to return home and spearhead this new initiative.

"This is one of a few destination marketing organizations in the United States partnering across state lines, which is bold and innovative," McCann said.

"The region is closely tied by its music and cultural heritage, and anchored by passionate people. We're going to use these homegrown assets to showcase our wineries, music venues, recreation and cultural assets."

McCann has developed an ongoing educational program focused on tourism marketing that's available to everyone involved with the Cascade Highlands. The program includes regional tourism summits featuring guest instructors, as well as free webinars covering everything from e-mail marketing to copyrighting to small town tourism strategies to social media.

"The training we have available for our tourism partners is unheard of in our area," said Turner. "The programs Brandon has set up are great, and they're getting people excited about what we're doing."

McCann utilizes the latest technology to assess travel patterns, understand perceptions of the region, and identify strategies that will motivate travelers to choose the Cascade Highlands. He also leans heavily on the advice of the man who envisioned this unique regional initiative.

"Dr. Harrell is a visionary. He sees there is better synergy through collective partnerships and cooperative marketing," said McCann. "His ability to bring diverse people together for a common purpose has been amazing."

In June, Cascade Highlands will sponsor “Blue Ridge, Blue Water & Bluegrass,” a tour of the region that includes stops in Galax and the Twin Counties on June 24-25. Tour participants will hike to see wild ponies at Grayson Highlands State Park, have dinner at Davis-Bourne Inn in Independence, bike on the New River Trail, visit Foggy Ridge Cider in Carroll County and get an overview of the Blue Ridge Wine Trail, tour downtown Galax and Chestnut Creek School of the Arts, have dinner at The Galax Smokehouse and attend a “Blue Ridge Backroads” radio show performance at the historic Rex Theater in downtown Galax.

For information on the Cascade Highlands, visit: TheCascadeHighlands.com or call (888) 602-2722. Brochures promoting the regional are also available at visitors' centers and other locations in the region.