Parkway 75th events planned

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

FANCY GAP — With a million more visitors expected to roll down the Blue Ridge Parkway for its 75th anniversary, that means more tourism for the Twin Counties, as well.

After all, Carroll County already boasts the second-most-used parkway entrance at Fancy Gap, and the Blue Ridge Music Center serves as a major attraction.

The challenge — as any representative of a gateway community can attest — is getting the visitors to stop.

Hence, the many events being planned in the Twin Counties to coincide with the landmark anniversary of "America's favorite drive."

Friday marks the commencement of more than a year of celebrations as the ceremonial torch is passed at Asheville, N.C., from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, with its 75th anniversary underway this year, to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Organizers expect the heightened attention given to this major milestone will result in perhaps as many as 21 million wanting to take a drive on the parkway.

"That's a lot of people coming to the parkway," said Don Foster of Blue Ridge Host.

Locals have been preparing to welcome the tourists into their communities with new events, though the planning itself hasn't drawn much attention yet.

One special parkway-related celebration is the "Old Fashion Christmas," set for Dec. 5 from 11 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m., when attendees will be encouraged afterward to go participate in Hillsville's parade and tree lighting, too.

The holiday festival will also serve as a kickoff to 75th anniversary observances. It will include Santa in an engine from Cana Fire Department; a caroling contest in which churches are encouraged to participate; a storytelling contest for children and adults; an ornament decorating contest; a s'mores party; seasonal treats like hot apple cider and hot chocolate; author Anne Whisnant signing "Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History," and more.

All through 2010, hundreds more events will be held. Locally, that will include a Cherry Festival in June; an Apple Festival to coincide with the parkway's original opening day in September; a caravan of 75 cars to visit celebrations throughout the Twin Counties and then onto the big event at Cumberland Knob; and two tours of the Rev. Bob Childress' rock churches. Many annual events, like Smoke on the Mountain barbecue cook-off and the Galax Leaf and String Festival, will have parkway tie-ins, too.

Foster sits on an events committee that just approved a list of a couple hundred festivities scheduled for January through December of 2010.

"A lot of them don't know a lot about this yet," Foster said. " There's still a lot of it in the planning."

Awareness of the anniversary is growing, he said. Fall leaf season visitors to his bed and breakfast have been asking about what's happening for the 75th.

The best way to keep track of it is to go to www.blueridgeparkway75.org.

"I think it's awesome," said Judy Brannock, executive director of the Twin County Regional Chamber of Commerce, about all the activities.

She's also looking forward to a Galax musical mainstay hitting its diamond anniversary at almost the same time as the parkway. "In 2010, in August, you have the 75th anniversary of the fiddlers' convention, and that's already a big draw.”

That and next September's keystone parkway celebration , coupled with the aggressive marketing push for the entire year, means the Twin Counties could get more visitors and new ones, she said. And once they come here the first time, she's certain they'll be back.

All the communities in the Twin Counties are working together to make it so, she added.

"That makes a really great August and September," Brannock said. "We're certainly going to be on our toes and busy."

Blue Ridge Host prepared for the anniversary this year in part by opening a Fancy Gap visitors center at Treasure Potts II. Foster said the place is getting a lot of traffic with a tremendous amount of maps and brochures disappearing.

With the many outdoor attractions in the Twin Counties, people here may have a tendency to overlook what the parkway has to offer. But Foster noted that the 19 or 20 million visitors in an average year don't take the parkway for granted, and they leave a lasting impact.

Tourists spend money with merchants, restaurants, lodging and other kinds of local businesses, he said. When those businesses turn around and spend that money in the community it has a multiplier effect.

"It has a huge impact on the economy," Foster said. "It has a huge impact on our tax base because it draws in people who want to live here."

"With the revenue that's going to be brought in, I just don't see a downside to it," Brannock agreed.