Modern Sport, Heritage Tourism

Northwest Georgia Charts A Course

As the crowd swelled on the corner of Hamilton and King Streets in downtown Dalton, straight pins started to fill the U.S. map fixed to a foam board under the Tour de Georgia information tent. California, Oregon, Washington, North Carolina. Visitors were sticking a pin into their home state. It was a U.S. map, but visitors from around the world would not be left out. They started writing in their home countries: France, Germany, Australia, England.

For one day last April, Dalton surrendered its title as Carpet Capital of the World and became the Cycling Capital of the World. The city didn’t mind one bit.

“We wanted to get an idea just where people were coming from, so we asked them to stick a pin in their home states and we had visitors from 32 states and 12 countries,” says Janet Cochran, executive director of the Dalton Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Needless to say we were very happy with so many people visiting from outside Georgia.”

Merchants were especially happy to grab a slice of the estimated $36 million in economic impact brought into the state by the Tour de Georgia, which has become the top professional cycling race in North America. The 655-mile, six-day event last April took its turn through northwest Georgia in Murray, Floyd and Whitfield counties.

Cochran says it was difficult to gauge the exact economic impact of the Tour De Georgia on Dalton, but the anecdotal evidence was all around that Friday morning as spectators flocked to the start line. Restaurants downtown enjoyed robust business, and 100 hotel rooms were occupied Thursday night.Cochran cites estimates of 5,000 people downtown that morning and fans stretched along the route out of town. Many were there to see legend Lance Armstrong in his final U.S cycling race, but organizers still expect significant crowds for the 2006 Tour de Georgia, set for April 23-28.

“Our downtown was shut down,” says Mike Pennington, director of economic development for the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce. “I was listening to the radio that morning and there were some European commentators who were amazed by the crowds of people. No one believed it could be done, but now it is the premier North American bicycling race and it comes through our region.”

There is another, more subtle, Tour de Georgia business leaders in the region want to highlight in the next few years, and that’s a tour through the Civil War and native-American trails. Northwest Georgia’s rich heritage should inspire tourists to make their way along state highways and off the Interstate.

Indeed, Murray County could boast a larger than life figure long before Lance Armstrong came pedaling through- James Vann, who built the first brick house in the Cherokee nation in 1804. It was continued reverence for the Chief Vann House that spurred Murray’s economic growth in 2005.

County residents raised more than $90,000 in cash and another $900,000 in grants to buy 85 acres of property adjoining the Chief Vann House historic site. Dinah Rowe, president of the Chatsworth-Murray County Chamber of Commerce, says the land owner was prepared to sell to a developer who wanted to put in a small strip mall and trailer park; but county residents decided the property was too vital to lose to development.

Rowe says the property was needed to expand and enhance the Chief Vann House attraction to include an 1880s-style working farm, with horses plowing fields. “Our people are really dedicated; it’s hard to keep them down if they care about something, and people care about the Chief Vann House site,” Rowe says. “Almost all the county was passionate about the site; it’s a landmark for our county and it is on the Trail of Tears.

“If we had not bought the property and expanded, it would have been a disaster because we attract so many people from around the country and so many school children from the state. It is a showcase for the Cherokee Nation.”

Counties in Northwest Georgia, like Murray County, have discovered that their heritage is an economic engine. They have cultivated historical resources and have been backed by the state trying to lure the tourists and their dollars.

“Tourism as an economic engine in the area, quite frankly, has come around 180 degrees,” says Alice Carson, regional tourism representative for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “Since 9/11 we have seen the drive market significantly increase. Our goal is to pull people off the Interstate and show them what we have to offer in North Georgia.”

The Tour de Georgia and the tour of historic homes are two ways to pull visitors off the highway. There’s also a tour of historic trails, such as the Chickamauga Campaign Heritage Trail, which dates back to September 1863.

Olney Meadows, executive director of the Catoosa County Development Authority, says there is a major initiative by Catoosa, Dade, Walker and Chattooga counties, as well as Marion County, Tenn., to market the 40- to 50-mile long trail through northwest Tennessee. Federal and Confederate armies skirmished along the trail in the bid to control a vital railroad intersection in Chattanooga during the height of the Civil War.

The four Georgia counties gave $1,500 each and received a $10,000 grant from the Georgia Department of Economic Development in 2005. They also received a $50,000 federal grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The idea behind the fund raising, says John Culpepper, Chickamauga’s city manager, is to turn the Chickamauga battlefield site into the Gettysburg of the South. Gettysburg, site of a decisive 1863 Civil War battle, is a major tourist draw for Pennsylvania.

Culpepper says the budget will cover 36 interpretive signs, 100,000 brochures, a Web site, and a $10,000 marketing plan. He says 500,000 people visit the Chickamauga National Military site each year, but the initiative wants to swell the number of tourists by taking them along the scenic routes used by Federal and Confederate armies 140 years ago.

“The 150-year anniversary of this war is five years away,” Culpepper says. “There are a lot of people in this country still fascinated by the War Between the States and this can be a big deal for Northwest Georgia.

“People can see the same sights their ancestors saw 140 years ago. Along the way, they will buy gas, eat at our restaurants and sleep at our motels.”

Not all the region’s economic energies are being expended on historic sites, however. One entrepreneur recently arrived on the Northwest Georgia scene is trying to create a name for himself.

Contracts were finalized in early December for John Nida to begin construction on the facility for his company, Nidaco Foods, in Floyd County. The firm, which is investing $17 million in the project, has plans for 125 employees.

In Bartow County, the big news is the finishing touches being put on the Toyo Tire plant, which was set to open in March. The company hired 100 workers in 2005 and should have 350 employees when it opens.

Bartow County is also finalizing its master plan for a 858-acre Cartersville-Bartow County Cor-porate Park on Cass-White Road. It’s being targeted as a site for light manufacturing and corporate headquarters.

Melinda Lemmon, executive director of the Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Development, says Aquafil, an Italian carpet company that had been renting space in Cartersville, announced plans in 2005 to construct a $9 million facility and add 46 new jobs.

In Dade County, Roof Curb Systems broke ground August 3 on a 25,000-square-foot facility in the Dade County Industrial Park. In addition, Bull Moose Tubing expanded by 50,000 square feet in the Dade County Industrial Park.

In Walker County, a big thrust was to grow existing businesses to help drive commerce. Quality Carpet Cushion, with the help of the Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority, was one of 12 companies around the state in 2005 to complete a program through the University of Georgia called “Export Georgia.”

The company manufactures carpet backing with recycled products and, says Kathy Johnson, executive director of the development authority, Quality Carpet Cushion can now compete in global marketplace because of the UGA program.

The Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority also is a catalyst behind a grassroots effort to promote art as part of economic development. Johnson says the three counties she represents- Walker, Dade, and Chattooga- received small grants in 2005 from the Georgia Council for the Arts.

Johnson says Walker County also will get a new rail spur now that Plymart, Inc., has acquired an existing lumber company. Plymart will sustain 20 jobs, add 20 more and will ramp up production.

The county is also getting a new subdivision, Fieldstone Farms, which plans 501 new homes on Highway 27 just 10 miles from the Chattanooga, Tenn., city line. Residents may work in Chattanooga, Johnson says, but they’ll be driving back and forth to Georgia and a new commercial center planned for Highway 27 near the subdivision.

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features