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Market tries to bring agri-tourism to Clayton

By Justin Boron

An assembly of state and local government representatives cut the ribbon on the Georgia Grown Visitors Center at the State Farmer's Market in Forest Park Friday to showcase the facility's opportunity to increase agri-tourism in Clayton County.

The ceremony marks the embarkment of revitalization efforts in the area, which officials say aim to increase tourism and commerce through a multitude of infrastructure improvements like commuter rail, roadway extensions, and facility expansions.

Expansion of retail within the market is an emphasis for the Clayton County Tourism Authority that wants to marry agriculture and tourism, said Beth Bailey, the spokesperson for the Georgia Grown Center.

The market plans to replace some of its facilities with more restaurants and shopping opportunities to broaden the scope of its visitation, she said.

Market improvements will attract agricultural-based groups like the Texas Cooperative Extension Service, who recently sent 100 rangers to tour the market, Bailey said.

Groups like the rangers would purchase produce from the market while spending money in the area's hotels and restaurants, she said.

Arrangements with metro Atlanta's convention centers also would send the market more visitors looking to see the sights, Bailey said.

The sum of the improvements would create a multi-faceted market that served trade-purposes as well as establish it as an tourist icon worldwide, said Tommy Irvin, the commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture.

Tourism in Clayton County produces $24.18 million in tax revenue, said Stacey Dickson, the president of the Clayton County Convention Center and Visitors Bureau.

"Clayton County is among the highest revenue producers for the tourism industry. Of course, our fortune of being home of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport plays a huge role in the fact that we generate so much revenue," she said.

As economic revitalization continues to progress in the State Farmers Market, federal and local representation for the area has called for a deviation from centralizing state administrative facilities in downtown Atlanta.

Officials hope to loosen downtown Atlanta's lock on the facilities by sprinkling division offices throughout the state.

Congressman David Scott has fueled a push to bring a portion of the state Department of Agriculture to the Farmer's Market.

Scott recently suggested that the Farmer's Market could provide an ideal place to house a related division of the agriculture department.

"It would bring tremendous prestige for the community," he said. "If we approached it in a manageable way, it would be very doable."

However, Scott said he could do only so much on the federal level. The move would require some "traction" locally before it could reach fruition, he said.

"If we get some traction on this idea, I'd be the first one at the table," he said.

But Commissioner Irvin rebuffed the idea when asked about it at Friday's ribbon cutting, even as enthusiasm for the move simmered in local leaders who said they looked forward to elevating the market's reputation to national status.

"There would be no place here for it if there were a desire," Irvin said. "The Department of Agriculture is pretty well-housed across from the capitol."

Eldrin Bell, the Democratic-nominee for the county chairman, took the opportunity to add the idea to his election platform.

"I would certainly move to bring any state agency here that could be of value to Clayton County," he said. "What we're seeing her today is just the way that kind of cooperation with the state helps in our efforts to advance tourism."

Michael Onyemenam, the Republican-nominee for county chairman, did not attend the ceremony but also expressed his approval of the idea, saying it would help to solidify the state's interest in the market.

"It shows that they're not going to abandon it," he said.

County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer said discussions were in place but that current projects needed to make more progress before a state agency would be ready to make the market its headquarters.

"In time, it will take place," he said. "Moving development a little further with the commuter rail would help."