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An Exponential Tourism Boost

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"Build it and they will come" is one of the most recognized lines from the movie "Field Of Dreams." The storyline centers on the main character constructing a baseball diamond in the center of a cornfield in hopes of attracting the boys of summer and crowds of fans from another era. The outcome was a happy Hollywood ending. The fans cheered, the players played, and the Iowa cornfield was transformed into a moneymaking venture that saved a family farm from financial ruin.

With the county commission's recent nod of approval for the Expo Center to be built at the James Ward Agricultural Center, Wilson County is taking a page from that blockbuster script in hopes of attracting new visitors and better accommodating existing organizations. Talk to anyone whose job is booking events, shows and conventions in an area and they'll tell you - providing ample space with all of the amenities is paramount in the competition for tourism dollars.

"In order to get these bigger regional or national rallies, we need to be able to meet their needs facility-wise," says Ward Ag Center director Larry Tomlinson, who admits he's frustrated whenever he has to turn away an organizer needing covered meeting space for 1,000 people or more. "Right now, we don't have a convention hall. We can't even handle local companies who want to hold their company picnics and meetings here."

It's Donna Bane's job to coordinate events at the 267-acre center. Her phone hasn't stopped ringing as convention planners and show organizers vie for first dibs on booking their events well into 2018 once the center is built.

"Just this week, I've had six groups call to put their name on the books once the Expo Center is completed. They're very excited about coming here for their meetings," Bane said between the ringing of the phone and entering another event into her computer.

"These people know that Wilson County events are well attended. Many of them tell me that they've attended a show here and saw how successful it was, so they decided to book their event here.

Once the Expo center is built, we won't have to turn anyone away simply because they're bringing more people than we can accommodate," Bane said, who points out that balancing the multiple events already booked at the fairgrounds with the new business coming to town is a good problem to have.

She isn't complaining.

If there's any doubt as to whether an Expo Center will be a success here, look no further than Wilson County's biggest competitor for tourism, Williamson County. The $14-million Ag Expo Park was built in Franklin in 2001 and now houses 50 major events attracting more than 300,000 visitors each year.

"It's a home run for the county, there's no doubt about that," said Park Director Kenny Wallace. "This center has had a $7.5 million economic impact on this county each year and that's a conservative estimate. Hotels are full, restaurants are full, visitors come here and spend money and that's what we want."

Once Ag Expo Park opened, Williamson County was immediately successful in luring the TSSAA Wrestling Tournament from its 30 year home in Chattanooga. Visitors estimated at 10,000 were wrestled away from Hamilton County, as well, and those attending this tournament each year spend thousands on hotels, food and sightseeing around Franklin and Brentwood.

Repeat business is the key to success for any large convention facility, and so far, Ag Expo Park has booked events for the same clients year after year while luring new shows, such as the Civil War Trade Show which was traditionally held at the fairgrounds in Nashville.

Planners for large conventions and trade shows regularly send out "feelers" looking for a better home when they outgrow their current venue. Wilson County will now be in the ballgame and will soon be able to offer the visitor convention and trade show space, free parking and lodging at a reasonable price - not to mention the best bragging right - the county's ace-in-the-hole when it comes to competing for tourists; the Music City Star train which can transport the visitor in comfort and convenience to nearby Nashville attractions and back again without a hassle.

Public television's "Antiques Road Show" scours the country looking for the ideal backdrop for its successful audience participation appraisal show. When the producers looked here - the antique mecca of the southeast - they found it lacking in covered space to produce the show and house its portable production facility and cameras during the week-long event. Such a television appearance would have put the area on the map for antique enthusiasts - a group known for traveling long distances looking for that unique addition to their collections.

Cathy McCook, president of the Watertown & East Wilson County Chamber of Commerce, believes the Expo Center will breathe new life into the area's economic outlook. "I think that this venue will be instrumental in showcasing all that this area has to offer," McCook said, who is the newly-appointed president of the Watertown Chamber of Commerce. "It will definitely provide our local businesses and services a new opportunity for growth."

County Mayor Randall Hutto agrees that the area is on the verge of economic awakening. "It's an exciting time in Wilson County, and we're growing in every aspect - there is no question Wilson County is the place to be!"

Groundbreaking on the Expo Center is set for August 24. Architect Mike Manous designed the 86,000-square-foot facility.

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Expo Center, Terri Merryman
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