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Fair, resort help put Towns on tourism map

POSTED: May 10, 2009 12:20 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Mike Rhinehart, left, and Rebecca McBride enjoy the view Thursday from the balcony of the Brasstown Valley Resort. The resort is a popular destination for tourists and people involved in conferences.

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HIAWASSEE — In 1950, the Towns County Lions Club decided to hold a three-day fair on the grounds of the local high school.The event brought 2,000 people to the tiny town of Hiawassee.

The Georgia Mountain Fair now is a full-time enterprise, with two seasonal fairs that each attracts more than 100,000 visitors. Outside of the fairgrounds, a 3,000-seat concert venue is home to top Nashville acts that attract country music fans from throughout the region.

The fair had a role in helping tourism supplant farming as the top industry in Towns County.

When the fair invested a whopping $1,500 to bring country music star Conway Twitty to the event, organizers had to take Twitty to a private home for dinner. There was no restaurant in Hiawassee.

Restaurants now occupy many prime spaces along U.S. 76, the main thoroughfare through the county. The choices now include Chinese, Mexican and Italian, in addition to the popular mountain-style meat and vegetables.

The biggest change in the face of tourism in Towns came in 1995 with the opening of Brasstown Valley Resort in Young Harris. The resort, a pet project of then-Gov. Zell Miller, is owned by the state but leased to a private firm.

Miller made it clear to business leaders that he wanted them to give his hometown resort a try.

Conventions and business meetings that once went to other Georgia locales such as Callaway Gardens, Jekyll Island and Savannah began to move to the mountains. Many of them have returned regularly.

Last week, for example, the resort was filled to capacity with members of the Georgia Economic Developers Association.

Prior to Brasstown Valley, the Fieldstone Inn, now renamed The Ridges Resort, was the first large hotel property. After the state resort opened, others arrived, including Ramada Inn at Lake Chatuge Lodge and Holiday Inn Express, offering an expanded choice of accommodations in Towns.

There are also a number of rental cabins and bed-and-breakfast inns within the county.

All lodging in the county is subject to a 5 percent hotel-motel tax, which has allowed the county to market itself as a tourism destination.

Hilda Thomason, general manager of the Georgia Mountain Fair and vice-president of the Towns County Tourism Association, said the bed tax has been used to fund advertising in tourist-oriented publications, such as Southern Living magazine.

The association, which markets under the theme "Mountain Top Georgia," has also aired commercials on the Atlanta Braves and Georgia Bulldog radio networks.

Thomason said the fair office, which is often the place where prospective tourists seek information, has fielded requests from throughout the Southeast and from as far away as California.



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