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West Virginia plans tourism campaign to beef up 'tarnished' image after chemical spill

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia officials want to put the shine back in the state's "Wild and Wonderful" tourism image after a chemical spill tainted the tap water for thousands of residents.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is talking with Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette and other tourism officials about developing a promotional message in the wake of the spill, said state Tourism Commissioner Betty Carver.

Carver said funding, the campaign's message and timing, and the potential markets to be targeted have not been determined yet. The campaign funding would be in addition to what the state already spends on tourism promotion.

A coal-cleaning agent spilled into the Elk River on Jan. 9, prompting a tap water-use ban that lasted several days in nine counties. Many residents continue to use bottled water despite repeated declarations by federal health officials that the tap water is safe.

"The 'Wild and Wonderful' brand is a really strong brand," said Dave Arnold, a member of the state Tourism Commission and a partner of whitewater outfitter Adventures on the Gorge. "The question is, how much is the brand tarnished? The brand is tarnished to some extent. Is it just a little bit? Is it something that's going to go away?"

The "Wild Wonderful West Virginia" phrase became widely used in the mid-1970s, appearing on everything from government pamphlets to license plates.

Former Gov. Arch Moore started using the slogan in 1969 and it remained on the state's welcome signs until then-Gov. Gaston Caperton removed it in 1991. The state used an "Open for Business" slogan under former Gov. Joe Manchin, but "Wild and Wonderful" returned in 2008 after a poll of residents.

West Virginia doesn't have a lot of tourism promotion dollars to throw around, unlike the record $100 million in Florida and $29 million in Michigan.

West Virginia spends $3 million annually on tourism advertising. Targeted growth areas include history; student travel; whitewater rafting and other adventure industries; casinos; and music and theatre.

The chemical spill failed to dampen attendance at a multistate tourism conference that wrapped up Tuesday at the Charleston Civic Center. The three-day Travel South USA gathering drew 530 tour operators, businesses, travel writers, marketers and advertisers. West Virginia had 40 companies involved.

"I think that speaks volumes, because people were really concerned," said Alisa Bailey, president of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

After the spill, state and local tourism officials received several offers of help from advertisers and counterparts in Southern states that have suffered through hurricanes and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The conference calmed any second thoughts about coming to West Virginia for Susann Hamlin, executive director of the Colbert County Tourism & Convention Bureau in northwest Alabama. She had seen accounts of the chemical spill in the news.

"We were worried up until the time we came," Hamlin said. "When we got here, we found out that number one, we know that if they had felt we were in danger, they would have cancelled it here and put it in another city. We've been very happy here and have had a great experience."

The chemical spill initially forced area restaurants and hotels to close, although the exact amount of losses, including January business tax collections, hasn't been determined.

Outside of the spill zone, West Virginia's ski industry was unaffected. Resorts were packed for the recent Presidents Day weekend. West Virginia Ski Areas Association spokesman Joe Stevens didn't have specific numbers but said the state's resorts had higher skier visits during the holiday weekend compared to recent years.

But the state's booming whitewater industry, whose heart is an hour southeast of Charleston, has to convince customers that it was unaffected, too.

The New River, where thousands of rafters and kayakers flock during warmer weather months, eventually meets up with the equally popular Gauley River at Gauley Bridge to form the Kanawha River. The Elk River, site of the chemical spill, flows into the Kanawha River in Charleston.

Arnold said whitewater enthusiasts need to know that water from the New and Gauley flow to Charleston, not the other way around.

"People don't know geography," Arnold said. "People from Charlotte or Cincinnati, they don't know if the Elk is upriver or downriver from the Gauley. It's even more than that. There are some people who don't understand that water moves downstream."

Back in Charleston, Bailey said local tourism officials plan to release a study early next month of consumers and meeting planners to see if there are continuing concerns about the tap water.

"If there are going to be obstacles for us in the future, we'd have to know that information before we can start selling the city again," Bailey said.

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