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Communities, parkway connect for 75th anniversary

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

Wanted — communities to pitch in with the celebration of the 75th anniversary of "America's Favorite Drive."

Reward — millions of revelers spending billions of dollars along the 29 counties that "world-class asset" the Blue Ridge Parkway runs through.

On a normal year, an estimated 20 million visitors to the 469-mile-long scenic road create a $2.3 billion economic impact in Virginia and North Carolina.

But parkway officials — like Superintendent Phil Francis and Dan Brown, retired superintendent and president of Blue Ridge Parkway 75 Inc. — expect the most-visited unit in the National Park Service to attract even more people in 2010.

The 50th anniversary resulted in an additional five million visitors to the parkway, for example, Francis said. Many events both on the parkway and in the communities nearby and a concerted marketing effort could bring in even more visitors this time.

The 75th birthday celebration will commence this fall, following the landmark anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park already underway.

After the Blue Ridge anniversary winds down, another national park in the Appalachians, Shenandoah, will begin its 75th year observance.

Special events being planned for the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2010 include two academic gatherings to discuss its future, one of those at Virginia Tech, as well as the Cumberland Knob Festival — several days of music, dance, crafts, cars and history, which may spill over to the Blue Ridge Music Center in the Twin Counties.

Reaching out to

Communities

Parkway officials want to make sure the celebrations reach beyond the park's narrow 400-foot-plus corridor and into the communities to build on the opportunities the 75th presents there.

So, at a regional meeting held at the Crossroads Institute last Wednesday, Francis, Brown and others asked representatives of localities from Roanoke to Patrick and Grayson counties and beyond to tie in with the anniversary activities.

The parkway, with its budget of $14 million. is not the best-funded park in the country, the superintendent said. Today, he has 71 unfilled positions on his staff.

The remaining crew has to do all things necessary "to keep the doors open," such as caring for 500 miles of road, 500 buildings, 100 wastewater treatment systems and the millions of visitors, Francis said.

He was struck by the question of how the staff would do all that and commemorate the parkway's anniversary at the same time. "What an opportunity to celebrate the 75th anniversary to bring focus and attention on this incredibly important asset that is owned by all of us, that's an economic generator, a place where memories are made, a place where we can come recreate and restore our souls..." he said.

So Francis asked the Blue Ridge Parkway Association to organize an effort to bring together all partners to talk about how to celebrate the anniversary.

After all, the quality of visitor experience along the parkway comes not just from driving inside its corridor, but also by the experience people have in the local communities, he said. If a ranger isn't polite and a visitor has a bad day because of it, then the visitor will remember that.

Everyone has to work together to make sure the visitors have a good time so they will come back with their grandkids and their friends and neighbors, he said.

Various partners — 34 entities from two states —have come together to create the Blue Ridge Parkway 75 Inc. to develop the ensuing celebration, Francis said. The mission of this group is to engage the communities and the visitors to celebrate the history and look forward to protecting the assets to make the parkway sustainable.

"One of the things I'm really interested in learning about is how we might partner better with you," he said to the audience that filled Crossroads' meeting room.

It's all about partnerships — volunteers are a significant resource for the parkway, for example, he said. Are there ways to partner with communities to better leverage federal dollars or educate the public?

Opportunities Together

The anniversary effort will benefit from $300,000 in grants meant to market next year's celebration. Francis believes this will result in a greater influx of additional visitors than the 50th anniversary had.

"We hope to have a big celebration up here around the state line where we invite dignitaries — maybe the governors, maybe the president, maybe the secretary of the interior," he said.

Organizers certainly want to involve the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax in some way.

"We want you to take advantage of the celebration," Francis said.

The Smokies had more than 100 events endorsed. With help from Virginia and North Carolina communities, Francis believes the parkways could do more.

Organizers discussed the opportunities to "co-brand" local events with the parkway's 75th; to be a part of the national, regional and local marketing campaigns; to have links on the new website created for the celebration — blueridgeparkway75.org.

Brown urged attendees to be the parkway celebration's ambassadors in the community. Locals can do a lot just by raising the issue with their county and city governments, tourism officials and community developers.

Locals are Onboard

Whenever locals gave input, they noted the importance of the parkway to the Twin Counties and the rest of Southwest Virginia.

Like Carroll Tourism Director Donnie Turner, who said he wanted to see visitors come off the parkway into Fancy Gap, Fries, Galax and Hillsville to enjoy the events, museums, music and more.

"We need people to come here from all over the world," Joe Wilson of the Blue Ridge Music Center said. "This is the best place in the United States."

A man from Bland County attended the meeting. Though he doesn't live near the parkway, he believes it's an asset important enough to the region to get involved with.

The parkway is a destination in itself, but the communities add to its attractiveness, participants agreed.

"It's not just the destination, it's the journey," Galax Tourism Director Chuck Riedhammer said.

Given the opportunity to provide input, locals made several suggestions to improve the parkway's relationship to the communities:

• what could be done about signs that could point the visitors toward their communities, to direct more traffic to Crossroads, villages, towns and cities, they asked.

• visitor's centers should give out more information about the communities along the parkway — why would a traveler want to go to a community if they can't find anything out about it?

• could volunteers help at the parkway centers, to share information about the communities?

• better targeted marketing for interest groups like birdwatchers, motorcyclists, classic car enthusiasts and more.

• create themed driving trails and loops to get more people off the parkway and visitors further afield in Southwest Virginia.

• create a biodiversity center to showcase the 1,600 vascular plant species, the 100 species of trees, the many salamanders and reptiles and 159 nesting birds that make this region one of the richest places for wildlife in the country, and offer guided nature hikes.

• generate additional promotional products, including CDs and DVDs full of facts and figures about communities and their history, as well as multimedia materials available for download to iPods.

• tie-ins with other cultural assets such as The Crooked Road music driving trail, The 'Round the Mountain Arts Trail and the Blue Ridge Music Center.

• host a parkway bicycle endurance race.

Oliver McBride of the Crossroads Institute said he'd like visitors to hear the story of the Rev. Bob Childress and the rock churches that played an important role in his mountain ministries. He could see that as a good project for an Appalachian studies class.