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Appetite for the outdoors

Calhoun County tries to maximize the benefits of ecotourism

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Ecotourism

Ecotourism doesn't have to be some fancy, expensive new activity. Something as classic as fishing is fine, such as when a fisherman takes advantage of a beautiful day and tries his luck below H. Neely Henry Dam along the Coosa River in Ohatchee.

Ecotourists are out and about in Calhoun County, but who are they? 

Basically, ecotourists are those engaging in such activities as hiking, kayaking, biking, birdwatching, riding horses and more for the purpose of health, enjoying nature and affecting the environment as little as possible.

Why not attract them to Calhoun County?

Many leaders throughout the nation have realized the positive ways ecotourists can improve an area’s economy. Residents of these places have begun supporting programs that bring these visitors into their towns and counties.

Doing so brings exponential benefits, such as pride among a city’s residents, financial gains in the local economy, educational programs for local students and the improvement of residents’ health when they enjoy the same outdoor activities the visitors come for.

The cities along Calhoun County’s Alabama 21 corridor, with its parallel Ladiga Trail that will soon extend to Anniston, have carried out programs to make their localities more hospitable for ecotourists. 

Recently, for example, the city of Piedmont has placed a renewed emphasis on festivals and movie nights with its new Arts and Entertainment Committee. 

Jacksonville’s volunteers have refurbished its historical signs. 

Weaver has a new splash pad in its park behind City Hall, while Anniston is investing in a new study by Jacksonville State University that will calculate the economic impact of recreational trails in Calhoun County.

Dozens of movers and shakers in all areas of the county contribute to ecotourism in dozens of ways — from the neighbor who places a bench along the Ladiga Trail to the organizer who creates hiking or running groups.  

Couple fond of Calhoun County’s outdoor features
Watershed vital to ecotourism

Hobson City has its own historical significance to out-of-town visitors. Incorporated in 1899, it is the first all-Black town in Alabama governed exclusively by Black people and the second in the United States. The town, which is only 1.5 miles square in size, has a historic school that is on the Alabama Register of Significant Places, plus a city park that’s believed to have first been used in early 1900s and may be the oldest continuously used park in all the African American community.  

Oxford, with its ample resources, turned 300 acres worth of strategically located land (that could have been used for more stores and parking lots) into the Choccolocco Park that draws in ecotourists by the thousands.

Jennifer Green, the director of the Jacksonville State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research, has dozens of ideas about how to capitalize on the ecotourism movement, which is in its fourth decade nationwide as a concept, according to an article by a group called Earth Reminder. It is dedicated to raising awareness of how to care for the earth and its resources by distributing relative information about ecotourism. 

When it comes to planning for successful visits by ecotourists, Green believes the more, the merrier — and the more effective.

“I believe we need a regional approach to tourism,” Green said. “We need to draw people to this side of the state. If they come, they are not so concerned about county and city lines. If we draw them to, say Coldwater Mountain, they need to know they may also take part in rock climbing, hiking and kayaking, in addition to enjoying the beautiful geographic area and diverse biology in this state.”

A 2014 study of the potential effects of extending the Ladiga Trail into Anniston estimated that the project — which is now underway — would have an additional total economic impact of between one and three million dollars annually on Calhoun County.

The study, which calculates the total trail users who signed in at the Eubanks Welcome Center in Piedmont during a certain period of time, grew from 1,766 users in 2000 to 4,445 in 2013. The study predicted that Anniston could draw even more ecotourists since many would also be seeking shopping and dining opportunities. In 2014, the median estimate of how much each visitor who passed through the Eubanks Welcome Center spent was $20 per day, and a study of the Coldwater Mountain Bike Trail revealed the median was $30. Writers of the survey estimated the median in Anniston would be closer to $30 a day because of more shopping areas. The Ladiga Trail study also estimated that 15 percent of trail users would seek overnight accommodations, which would raise the amount spent per day to $140 in 2014.

Since the days when Calhoun County’s city leaders first saw the potential economic boost that the Ladiga Trail could contribute — the first section, in Piedmont, opened in September 1996 — many more attractions, both off and on the trail, have been added or are planned. Green believes there is always room for improvement in what the county’s leaders can do, that there is power in numbers and that having a comprehensive recreational master planis vital.

The economists at JSU aren’t the only ones interested in improving tourism. 

In May 2019, the Calhoun County Area Chamber and Visitor’s Center hired Audrey Maxwell as its tourism director. Her interest in travel and her willingness to take part in activities throughout the county — she often dresses in a costume to match the event — have allowed her to create excitement about the topic. She said she wants to work with all entities to bring in more ecotourism.

“Our focus is on convening with our stakeholder partners, such as people directly related to our area’s attractions, our hoteliers, restaurateursand event planners,” said Maxwell, who has a background in marketing. “We plan to expand our marketing efforts to increase our tourism-brand awareness.”

Those plans rely in part on an updated website called Visitcalhouncounty.com. The tourism department will review its social media presence and other delivery channels, such as television and billboards. The chamber and visitor’s center feel it is important to continue fostering relationships with the area’s city leaders, elected local and state officials and the media, according to Maxwell, who istraveling soon to the Alabama Welcome Center in DeKalb County to deliver brochures about area tourist attractions. There are currently brochures in the welcome center in Heflin, and the chamber and visitor’s center have a history of purchasing billboards and ads on cable TV and news channels promoting both seasonal activities and messages welcoming ecotourists.

“I have travel experiences I developed during my childhood and adulthood,” Maxwell said. “I have really focused my attention on how to make this area attractive for those wanting to come to find all the great things we have, especially those that focus on ecotourism.”