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February 3, 2008

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Sunday, February 3, 2008

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Henry County-Martinsville area put out the welcome mat on Friday in hopes that a visit by tour bus company representatives will bring them back for more.

Representatives of four motor-coach tour companies visited the area as part of a tour of Southside Virginia. They said they were impressed with what they saw and could envision working to schedule tours to Southside either as a destination point or as part of larger tours.

The group visited the Martinsville Speedway and ate lunch at Clarence's Restaurant in Ridgeway. It then visited Piedmont Arts, the Virginia Museum of Natural History and the newly renovated Artisan Center, all in Martinsville.

Friday night, the group was scheduled to travel to the Virginia International Raceway, between Danville and South Boston, and spend the night in that area.

Previously, it had visited a historic park near Petersburg before traveling to Southside and visiting such attractions as South Boston Speedway, Bob Cage's Sculpture Farm, the Berry Hill ante-bellum mansion and estate, the North Theatre, the Tank Museum, a fine arts/historical museum, a farmers market, an outdoor amphitheater and "millionaires' row." And group members had a "period" breakfast, featuring cuisine around the time of the Civil War - fitting since Danville was the last Confederate capital.

The group was scheduled to return to Virginia Beach on Saturday for the American Bus Association's 2008 Marketplace. That is a conference with about 3,500 travel and group tour industry representatives and tourism officials from across North America.

At the Martinsville Speedway Friday morning, despite the rainy weather, the group's tour bus drove two laps around the half-mile track. Then speedway President Clay Campbell drove the tour group members two at a time in the pace car, traveling at 60 mph or so on the track. Campbell said the pace car can reach a speed of at least 130 mph.

Accompanying the group were tourism directors David Rotenizer of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp., Rosalee Maxwell of Danville and Linda Sheppard of South Boston-Halifax County.

Campbell told the group about the history of the speedway, improvements to the track in recent years and details of its operation. It will seat about 63,000 people, has two large and two smaller races each year, has about 800 people on the payroll for large racing events and is family-oriented track, he said.

"We have a city within a city. Most places would jump through hoops to get a place like this," Campbell said.

Years ago, officials estimated the economic impact of one race at $30 million, he said. And much of that money is spent in the community by race fans for such things as lodging, meals and shopping, Campbell said.

Campbell thanked the group for coming and said the speedway generally gets 100 to 150 buses at a race, which saves an average of 25 or so parking spaces per bus.

Campbell said he hopes the group's visit will translate into more visitors to the track through bus tours.

The tour company owners or officials said that NASCAR racing, history, natural beauty and some other sights of interest could help attract tour groups to the area.

"It's neat to find interesting things you don't find in other places." said Lee Dahl of Brighton, Colo., owner of Leisure West Tours and Cruises.

He said he could foresee possibly two different types of trips here: one focusing on the tobacco, history and historic mansions (possibly in connection with Christmas lights), and one for NASCAR fans.

Ilene Berke of West Bloomfield, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, owner and operator of Berkley Tours and Travel Inc., also saw the area's tourism potential.

"My impression (of Southside) is absolutely fantastic," she said, adding that she was impressed with Danville's Tank Museum and other museums in the area, NASCAR racing, the friendliness of the people "and most of all, the beauty of the area."

"Most definitely" she would bring people here, she said. Tom Brynan, vice president of Werner Coach in Phoenixville, Pa., said he thinks this area would appeal to tourists because of NASCAR racing, the region's history and the museums.

Brent Johns, a Web designer for Treasure Valley Tours in the Boise, Idaho, area, puts tours together for his company and figures out whom he can market them to.
"It's some of the most beautiful country I've ever seen," he said of Southside.

He added that he also was impressed by NASCAR racing, and he is putting together a tour to several NASCAR racetracks, including Martinsville. "We'll be here for a week," he said.

Johns also said the history of the region, particularly tied to the Civil War, would help attract tourists.

Rotenizer said that members of the tour group seemed to enjoy not only their visit to the speedway Friday, but the art exhibits, art classes and the VMNH exhibits at their other stops.

He said the bus tour industry is changing and that baby boomers want to do things that are different or exciting. Some of the activities in this area, such as customized art classes, could be attractions for those people, he said.

Tourism officials Rotenizer, Maxwell and Sheppard said that they are working together to promote the region.

"There is definitely interest, but competition (for bus tours) is tough," Rotenizer said.

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