Small Rural Communities Roll Out Local Welcome Mats

TRAVELERS who make the effort to swing through Bloomfield, Iowa, are greeted by a charmingly unusual visitors' center. The Davis County Tourism Corporation sits in a house that once came out of a Sears catalog, circa 1910. The chance to see this well-maintained relic has helped to generate a steady stream of passers-through. ``It's amazing,'' says Christine Botts, the center's president. ``We get 'em from all over the world. We've had people from every state, too, including Hawaii and Alaska.''

Iowa, like other states around the country, has begun singing the praises of rural tourism. ``The theme that we use is `Discover Iowa Treasures,' and the gist of it is that there's more to see and do than you ever imagined,'' says Nancy Landess, marketing manager in the Tourism Division of Iowa's Department of Economic Development.

In 1987 the state legislature passed a bill supporting the establishment of a network of welcome centers. Participating communities must match the state's contribution over a seven-year period. The center in Bloomfield is one of five pilot projects established in communities with populations of 5,000 or less.

Each has tried to highlight some unique feature. Elk Horn, for example, plays up its Danish flavor by housing the welcome center in a working windmill brought over from Denmark. And in Emmetsburg, where Irish lineage is common, there is a large St. Patrick's Day celebration.

Attracting tourists serves two functions in Davis County, one of the areas hardest hit during the late-'80s farm crisis. It enlivens community-mindedness and confidence, plus it generates business.

``We've suffered through some pretty bad droughts, so we think it's been an economic help,'' Mrs. Botts says.

The word about Davis County and other Iowa ``treasures'' is dispersed through the marketing materials produced by the state's ambitious tourism office.

``People once said, `If you really want to get away from everything, go to the Iowa'; it had almost a negative connotation,'' says David Edgell of the United States Travel and Tourism Administration in Washington. ``They have turned that around. I've never seen a state working so hard for tourism, both domestic [and] international.''

One factor that has focused attention on the state is the movie, ``Field of Dreams,'' which received several Academy Award nominations and romanticized its rural setting. The filming was done on location in Dyersville, Iowa, where a baseball diamond, complete with lights and bleachers, was built in the middle of a corn field. The site straddles two farms and after the project was completed, one farmer replanted crops in left field. He has since decided to convert it back to a ball field.

Shirley Finnell, secretary of the Dyersville Area Chamber of Commerce, says 5,000 to 7,000 people have visited the field since last summer. There is no admission fee. Fans are welcome to inspect the scene from the porch of the farmhouse next door.

In another example of how rural America can benefit from America's movie culture, the Seward County Historical Society in Liberal, Kansas, sells inscribed yellow bricks to pave the way to Dorothy's house, immortalized in ``The Wizard of Oz.''

Not every small city or town has such a well-defined draw. Often, however, there is the potential for building on what exists.

Patrick Long, director of the Center for Recreation and Tourism Development in Boulder, Colo., says the attraction may simply be environmental. He cites northeast Colorado as a region with an indelible allure, especially for those desiring to reexperience the natural beauty of such areas.

``If you drive through there in August, when the wheat is full and the wind is blowing, you truly have amber waves of grain,'' he says. ``It's like standing in the [360-degree] Discover America exhibit at Disney World.''

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