Tara carries flag of local tourism

By Justin Boron

Tara - Clayton County is stamped with it.

It appears on road signs, and is included in at least 60 businesses, churches, an neighborhoods in the area. There is also a lake called Tara. And it is even the name of an airport owned by the county.

The word is a ubiquitous emblem for Clayton County's tourism industry, a mix of Civil War History and "Gone With the Wind" fiction.

Although the connection to Margaret Mitchell's fictional world may seem overdone to locals, tourism experts say it's pay dirt for attracting visitors and dollars they spend in the community.

"People always take for granted the thing that will put them on the map," said Berkeley W. Young, a travel marketing expert, who recently evaluated Clayton County's tourism. "Clayton County has one of the top two to three things people want to know about Georgia, and that's 'Gone With the Wind.'"

The Mitchell story and Jonesboro's Civil War monuments have become a staple in a region that is becoming progressively more attune to the economic benefits of historical tourism. In Henry County, there are plans for driving trails marking Sherman's March to the Sea that could generate more than a million dollars in added revenue, said Mark Pollard, a Henry County historian.

The governor also has announced a regional plan to be more aggressive in marketing the South's heritage.

"While the South has excellent traditional tourism assets such as beaches and mountains, we have an opportunity to expand our portfolio and market our region's cultural and historical resources," Gov. Sonny Perdue said.

Henry County, which has centered most of its tourism around retail and the Atlanta Motor Speedway, may not have a major battle on which to hang its Civil War tourism. But Pollard said there is still a huge potential for expanding historical tourism there.

"Henry County has some untapped resources as far as the ante-bellum homes," he said. "You could write chapters on some of the homes here."

Tourism is meant for visitors

There is a distinction between people who live amongst the historical sites and the people who are making purchases in the historical communities they visit.

One Jonesboro resident said while he appreciates his city's historic beauty, he hasn't gotten too deeply into the tourist sites like Stately Oaks Plantation.

"I've lived here 30 years, and I'm ashamed to say it, but I've never been there," said Mike McCray, who lives just a few blocks from the sites.

But Charles Koffler, who traveled almost 300 miles to visit Jonesboro's history, said he was amazed at how much information a single town could provide about "Gone with the Wind."

Stacey Dickson, the president of the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau, admits the obsession with "Gone With the Wind" or the Civil War may be lost on its own residents. But she said it has been sensational at attracting visitors.

"History is our strongest calling card with the traveling public," she said. "You kind of have to dance with the one that brought you."

"Gone With the Wind" also provides for a large international draw, she said.

"They might know Scarlett or Tara, but that's all they know in English," she said.

Attractions need to be abundant, quick, and accessible

Jonesboro has got the cemetery, Stately Oaks, and a license from the Mitchell estate to market "Gone With the Wind." But is that enough?

Probably not for tourists, Young said.

"Once they get there, they want more," he said.

A survey by Randall Travel Marketing for which Young is the vice president indicates that village style shopping was a highly requested concept.

Jonesboro has developed a livable centers initiative to help create that village style atmosphere and bring the city's historical tourism on par with some of the most-visited sites in the nation, Dickson said.

"There is no reason that Jonesboro can't be to the Civil War what colonial Williamsburg is to the Revolutionary War," she said.

Young also said the area's historic tours and attractions need to be hands on, exciting, and fast all at the same time.

"All too often, historic sites are like a public library," he said. "The whole key is to make history fun."

The time it takes to move tourists through an attraction can determine its success, Young said.

"We're impatient," he said. "People want to get the facts as quickly as possible."

As it stands now, 90 percent of the people visiting Clayton County come by car. The other 10 percent take cabs or buses to arrive on Atlanta's Southside, Dickson said.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell has moved to improve that accessibility.

Initially, the rail is set to only make inbound morning trips and outbound evening trips. But if mid-day trips kick in, tourists visiting the Margaret Mitchell house in Atlanta could get to Clayton County without ever using a car.

"Then, it would be seamless," Dickson said.