By MELINDA HUDGENS
Back roads, grits and moonshine all meet in the rolling hills of nearby Cannon County, and local leaders are doing their part to attract out-of-towners - and their dollars - to the area.
Given its size and nearly non-existent marketing budget, Cannon County isn't in the position to promote its attractions, explains volunteer Chamber president Neal Applebaum. That's why he's called on neighboring Rutherford County and its prominent Chamber of Commerce for help.
The two organizations have launched a joint tourism campaign, "Backroads, Grits and Moonshine Tour," that takes visitors on a tour of the Readyville Mill, Arts Center of Cannon County, Blue Porch @ Arts Center, Short Mountain Distillery and antique shopping on the Square.
Applebaum said he's glad to have the opportunity to show other people what makes Cannon County so very special.
"It helps us spread the word … we get the benefit of having our name dropped any time a person comes here and takes a picture, then spreads the word through social media. Rutherford County is basically opening the door for those folks," he said.
"A condition and side benefit of that is being smarter to work together to generate business that is necessary to keep these economies going. We're both good at marketing what is unique to Middle Tennessee."
Applebaum and Mona Herring, vice president of convention and tourism bureau with the Rutherford County Chamber, both credit Blue Porch @ Arts Center owner Wanda Thompson with envisioning the tour concept.
"With all (the attractions here), it made sense that we were a good loop for a tour. Short Mountain Distillery was the last thing we needed to make it a really good day tour," she said.
"Cannon County is sort of this well-kept secret, and it is kind of a happenin' place. Moonshine is really trendy right now, and our big thing (at Blue Porch @ Arts Center) is pick local, buy local, shop local, and that's really trendy right now. With the Readyville Mill and the Arts Center and everything we have going on here, we happen to be on a wave that is starting in Cannon County, and I think it will definitely kick off."
Woodbury has one 12-room hotel and a two-room bed and breakfast. It's not exactly ideal for visitors looking for a weekend stay.
"We thought this would be a good partnership for people to come into Murfreesboro and stay in our hotels, and then we take them on this tour," Herring explained.
"We've taken the tour idea to travel shows that we go to, and then we sell it to the group tour leaders. They bring a 55-seat bus full of people down here, and we take them on this tour."
Additionally, many visitors to Rutherford County have toured Oaklands Historic Mansion and Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro or Sam Davis Home and Nissan in Smyrna. The Back Roads, Grits and Moonshine Tour offers another site to be seen and experience to be had.
Herring said the tour's first trip to Cannon County was "very, very successful." In fact, Short Mountain Distillery sold the group some six cases of moonshine.
"They had a great time, they had a wonderful time, and they enjoyed every bit of it an on this tour," she said.
"We realize that a visitor doesn't really know where the county lines are, and they really don't care where the county lines are. As long as they're staying with us, and we're able to bring them in for a night for the tour or extend their stay here, that benefits all the citizens of Rutherford County."
When tourists spend their money in Rutherford County, local residents reap the benefits of sales tax and hotel tax dollars that are used for local roadways and education.
According to figures recently released by the U.S. Travel Association's Economic Impact of Travel on Tennessee Counties Report, tourism and travel-related expenditures in Rutherford County increased significantly in 2011.
The report shows that travel-related expenditures in Rutherford County were $252.83 million in 2011. This amount reflects a $24.3 million (10.61 percent) increase over the previous year's figure of $228.6 million.
Rutherford County also experienced an increase in local and state tax receipts. These figures place Rutherford County third in terms of travel-related expenditures in the 13-county Mid-Cumberland Region and ninth out of the state's 95 counties.
"If we can bring people in to our hotels, and they eat here, and we can take them to nearby counties and they stay here longer, that's better for all of us," Herring said. "We say that our visitors are temporary tax payers; when they come in here, they spend their money, they spend the night, they eat in our restaurants, and they do us a big favor by leaving."
While the Back Roads, Grits and Moonshine Tour is currently only available to pre-formed group tours, community leaders encourage local residents to make the 20-minute drive to Cannon County and take a self-guided tour of the attractions. Herring says opening the tour to locals is a possibility, and the idea may be explored further in the future.
Readyville Mill is open on Saturday mornings for breakfast and tours, and it is also available for events like weddings and celebrations.
Nearby, Blue Porch @ Arts Center is open six days a week and offers a variety of breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner hours, and The Arts Center of Cannon County is also open for tours and shows.
While the Famers' Market is now closed for the winter season, it will reopen in a new building on June 1.
Residents can also hop on over to Short Mountain Distillery for tastings Thursday through Saturday.
"Many Rutherford County residents didn't know until recently that we have a distillery or how much goes on at the Arts Center and that it won a Grammy a couple of years ago," Applebaum said.
"Rutherford County is about 20 times our population. I'm not sure anybody realizes that. And probably 30 percent of all the people who are working go to Rutherford County every day, but it doesn't happen in reverse. People are rarely traveling this way."
He also pointed out that Cannon County has made the news for bad acts instead of for having good business, and "we're just trying to let people know that we have great things to offer."
Applebaum added the joint venture also leads to more business synergies between the two counties - not just tourism, but other business opportunities.
"Cannon County is working on retailing local beef, but we need more than the population of Cannon County to consume local cows," he said. "We're doing a great job with grass fed, organic cows, so let's supply the region with food, too."