A marketing consultant says Rossville, LaFayette, Fort Oglethorpe, Summerville and other Georgia communities along U.S. Highway 27 need to cast their nets and haul in some tourists.
"I want them to think of Highway 27 as a river of money going through West Georgia and all they have to do is seine it," said Judy Randall, president of Randall Travel Marketing.
Randall recently presented a study to the Highway 27 Association in Georgia, telling members that a new website, welcome center and road signs directing travelers to attractions such as James H. "Sloppy" Floyd State Park, the Martha Berry Museum and folk artist Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens would help the highway's "brand" and bring more travelers to towns along the route.
U.S. 27 links 19 West Georgia counties from the Florida line to Rossville. The whole route extends from Southern Florida to Indiana and Ohio. Along the way it connects millions of people in Chattanooga, Miami, Cincinnati, Tallahassee, Lexington, Ky., and Fort Wayne, Ind.
Randall found that drivers on U.S. 27 usually choose it to avoid interstates 75 and 85. Specifically, the study found travelers spend hundreds of dollars a day, 50 percent visit attractions, 37 percent shop and 13 percent attend festivals. Travelers she surveyed said they like stopping at good restaurants and quirky attractions in the towns along the route, but often aren't aware of what there is to choose from.
"You've got people that want to stop. They just don't know what to do," Randall said. "They love Rome, they love LaGrange, they love going into these towns."
The website, brochures and new signs could help them, she said.
Randall's study lists three potential "brands" for the highway, with respondents favoring "Georgia Off the Interstate" ahead of "Georgia's Hometown Highway" or "Georgia's Scenic American Road." She suggested the highway adopt a slogan such as "Off I-75 to the Scenic, Hometown Highway" and promote the route's lighter traffic, history and charm.
Walker County resident Virgil Sperry, recently named chairman for the Highway 27 Association, said the group is ramping up its efforts to promote the route.
"We're hoping we can identify 27 as more than just a line on a map," he said.
Chattooga County Commissioner Jason Winters said Randall's analysis seems "exactly right."
"Any car that gets off of I-75 is one that doesn't buy gas and buy food on 75," he said. "They come to our corridor."
Winters recently drove about 230 miles of the highway from Fort Gaines near Albany back to Summerville. He appreciated the charm of the route, but said he did notice a need for better signs.
"It is not quicker to go down 27," said Winters, who had to ignore his GPS directions that would lead him to the interstate. "It's the quality factor -- is it something different that you haven't seen?"
LaFayette Mayor Neal Florence said "the potential's great" for cities along the highway, and cities should do more to draw in travelers.
"They've got the (Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military) park they can go to and then can come down to Chickamauga and then to LaFayette," he said.
Chris McKeever, executive director of the 6th Cavalry Museum off U.S. 27 in Fort Oglethorpe, said she's excited about the marketing effort and hopes it will draw the merchants, cities and attractions together.
"Individually everybody is trying to do their own thing," she said. "There's strength in numbers. It's everybody working together along Highway 27 that's going to make it happen."
From state line to state line the road is called Martha Berry Highway after the founder of Rome's Berry College. Randall recommended, and McKeever agreed, that a stronger "name brand" for the route could improve its image. McKeever suggested something paying homage to U.S. 27's history as a route for midwesterners to vacation in Florida. Winters suggested a name mentioning the military heritage of Fort Oglethorpe, the Chickamauga Battlefield, Fort Benning and other installations along the corridor.
The campaign will take time, according to Sperry.
"Tourism isn't something that we complete these action plans and see more traffic," he said. "It's a gradual thing."