Meriwether tourism would benefit Coweta

by W. Winston Skinner


Tourism expert Bruce Green, right, chats with 92-year-old Oretha Burston during the tourism team’s visit to the Lone Oak Community Center. 

A tourism team came to Meriwether County looking for places with stories, and they found them.

There was the Eleanor Roosevelt School in Warm Springs. According to local legend, the school was funded by the Rosenwald Fund at the specific request of the first lady. The Rosenwald Fund built schools — more than 5,000 across the country — for black children in rural areas for decades.

The tourism experts marvelled at the Red Oak Creek covered bridge, said to be built by former slave Horace King. In Luthersville, they sized up possibilities for an antebellum home built by a Confederate captain and still owned by his great-great-grandson.

There were visits to farms, shops and venues for weddings and parties.

The final stop on the tour — which took place over three days — was the Lone Oak Community Center, located in an 1890 era schoolhouse that is still a meeting place for a community club organized in 1952. In Lone Oak, Bruce Green, director of tourism product development, spent much of his time in conversation with Oretha Burston, who — at 92 — has seen much the last century unfold.

“I bet you’ve got some stories,” Green told Burston when they were introduced.

Officials in Meriwether County are hoping the Tourism Product Development Team will find a way to turn some of those stories into experiences for visitors — experiences that will generate dollars for the economy in Meriwether County, and for Coweta County, as well.

Meriwether County does not have an interchange on Interstate 85, so people heading from Atlanta to the Little White House in Warm Springs pass through Moreland — home to a trio of museums — before getting to Meriwether County.

Carol Chancey, who works with the Moreland Cultural Arts Alliance to promote tourism in the town, said the Meriwether efforts should be good for Coweta in economic development terms.

The tourism group’s visit to Meriwether County “gives an opportunity for all of us,” Chancey said. She said many of the services that could come to the area — shopping and restaurants, for example — would be of use not only to visitors but to local residents, as well.

“Exit 41 going south has not been really tapped into. It’s such a tremendous opportunity. It’s not just tourism — it’s economic development,” Chancey said.

Green said the visit to Meriwether County was “absolutely marvelous.” The county has “a rich, vast collection of historic — cultural, Native American, African-American — resources,” he said. “We are so looking forward to developing — with them — a strategy that will take them into the next five years.”

The team left Meriwether County on Friday and will begin work now on the plan. When it is completed — in about two months — there will be a public meeting to unveil the proposal and highlight its findings. Green said the plan will offer “a systematic way” to create jobs and economic development.

Carolyn McKinley, executive director of the Meriwether County Chamber of Commerce, traveled with the group during their visit.

“We have learned so much about our county that those of us who have lived here our whole lives didn’t know,” she said.

McKinley praised Green and the members of the team. “They are so excited, so passionate about what they have seen,” she said.

McKinley also talked about the countywide cooperation for the team’s visit. Mayors in several cities welcomed the visitors, and local businesses sponsored meals. “Everyone has been so gracious and hospitable,” she said.

Historic sites and authentic rural vistas have an appeal for many visitors.

“Sometimes they’re just looking for attractive scenery and surroundings,” Chancey said. The key, she said, is “the way you tell the story and package it.”

At each stop, there were people who know the stories and who wanted to share them with tourists. Shirley Hines, who attended the gathering in Lone Oak, mused, “This is the best kept secret.”

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