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Henry chamber members raise 'Toast to Tourism'

By Valerie Baldowski

Members of Henry County's business community gathered recently to celebrate the fifth annual Toast to Tourism.

The event, hosted Thursday by the Henry County Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, was held at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Participants set up information booths to advertise their products and services, and had a chance to network with other business owners in a social setting. Armed with beverages and plates of food, chamber members had an opportunity to visit booths and greet other business people, or simply sit at one of the tables overlooking the track and watch the Thursday Thunder races below.

The event's activities were scheduled around drawings for door prizes and addresses by Laura Barrett, director of tourism and communications for the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark, and state Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle).

"Tourism is what we're all about tonight," said Barrett. "We have so much to be proud of."

According to figures from the Georgia Department of Economic Development, she said, tourism in Henry resulted in $176 million in visitor expenditures, the creation of 2,210 jobs in Henry County, $5 million in local sales tax revenue, and $7 million in state tax revenue in 2007.

Barrett said the purpose of the event at the racetrack was to raise awareness of the role tourism plays in the county, and highlight what Henry County has to offer.

Clark said he believes his venue is one of the main attractions in the county. He gave an overview of upcoming events, including this fall's NASCAR night race.

"Being one of the most significant tourism facilities in Henry County, the Toast of Tourism event provided us an opportunity to show people what we do - not just our two NASCAR Sprint Cup weekends, but what we do on a weekly basis, like the Bandolero Nationals this weekend," Clark said.

He encouraged residents to come out and support local drivers during the speedway's regular events.

"Even our smaller events, like our weekly Thursday Thunder and Friday Night Drags series, have an economic impact locally," Clark said. "We will have competitors from more than 19 states at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and many people here around the county don't know about the event."

Douglas, noting attractions like Tanger Outlet Center and Noah's Ark Animal Rehabilitation Center, both in Locust Grove, said Henry County has a lot to offer visitors. Travelers passing through the area, he said, can stop at a number of "family-friendly" hotels lining Interstate 75. Additionally, he said, the Merle Manders and Locust Grove conference centers are available for business functions and social gatherings.

"It's difficult to talk about because there's so much to offer," Douglas said. "We've got it all right here."