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December 18, 2014

Tourists without borders: Businesses leaders encouraged to work across counties, state lines to attract visitors

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Posted: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 4:54 pm | Updated: 5:04 pm, Tue Jul 1, 2014.

OXFORD — Mary Patchunka-Smith wants local businesses to forget about lines on the map.

After all, she said Tuesday, their customers don't pay attention to them.

Speaking Tuesday at a tourism summit at the Oxford Performing Arts Center, Patchunka-Smith, chairwoman of the Visit Calhoun County tourism campaign of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, unveiled the chamber's participation in Tour East Alabama, a nine-county effort to highlight regional destinations.

"Tourists don't care about city limits and county lines," Patchunka-Smith said. "It's up to us to show them a good time and make them want to visit."

It means reaching beyond Coldwater Mountain and the Ladiga Trail, and highlighting the Talladega International Speedway and Mount Cheaha, Patchunka-Smith said. Visitors to the area want to see everything the region has to offer, and counties can play a big role in helping each other out.

Although Patchunka-Smith, who moved from the Clay County Chamber of Commerce to Calhoun County earlier this year, has worked for four years with Tour East Alabama, Calhoun County's participation is brand-new, an attempt to expand promotion and resources within the region.

Part of the new campaign, Patchunka-Smith said, will include updating Calhoun County's tourism materials, including guides, maps and brochures to broaden the scope and area for attractions, restaurants and hotels.

"Brag on your neighbors whenever you can," said guest speaker Bill Hardman, CEO and president of  the Southeast Tourism Society. "If they're bragging on you, you got a lot of people bragging about the area."

Hardman, who represents a 12-state tourism society, said tourism has benefited in recent years from developing partnerships with neighbors rather than fostering competition. The nine-county partnership in East Alabama — which contains Cleburne, Cherokee, Clay, Chambers, Coosa, Randolph, Talladega and Tallapoosa counties — compares on a smaller scale to the partnership Hardman said has succeeded with states throughout the Southeast.

Grey Brennan, the regional director for the Alabama Tourism Department, said the Interstate 20 corridor is the second-most visited area of the state after the Gulf Coast. It's what makes Calhoun County such an ideal location for tourists looking to explore the region, he said.

And I-20's access opens up the area to tourism from Atlanta, and beyond, thanks to the city's busy international airport, Brennan said.

"We're looking at the person who flies into Atlanta and then hops in a car and drives to Memphis," Brennan said, noting that international tourists, on average, visit 2.3 states on visits to the country. "We're saying, here's what's along the way."

More than 100 local business leaders attended Tuesday's event, which Patchunka-Smith said she hopes will become a regular event for the county chamber and its partners in nearby counties.

Lamar Dewberry, owner of Mountain Streams Realty in Lineville, said he's optimistic about the chamber stretching its partnership and thinks businesses in Clay County, including his own, will benefit.

"It doesn't matter if you get your word out in Clay County or Anniston, Birmingham or Atlanta," Dewberry said. "It helps all of us out."

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