Regional leaders brainstorm ways to boost area tourism

jholland@modbee.comMay 27, 2013 

Here's a message for tourists passing through Modesto or Merced on their way to Yosemite National Park: Stop and pick some cherries. Or visit a waterfowl refuge. Or walk in the footsteps of George Lucas.

Speakers offered those ideas Wednesday at a conference in Turlock on how to increase tourism in the San Joaquin Valley.

"We're not the Bay Area, and we're not LA, but we've seen growth in our region," said Wes Rhea, executive director of the Stockton Convention and Visitors Bureau.

About 120 people turned out at California State University, Stanislaus, for the event, sponsored by the Great Valley Center and several partners.

The five counties from San Joaquin to Fresno accounted for only 3 percent of the state's $102 billion in tourist spending in 2011, according to Dean Runyan Associates Inc., a consulting firm.

But possibilities abound, speakers said: Some 10 million people live within 100 miles of the region, and many of them want to see its farms, rivers, reservoirs and other attractions.

Penny Leff, agritourism coordinator at the University of California at Davis, said this kind of enterprise is fairly new but promising. Visitors could spend an hour or two at a corn maze or pumpkin patch, or they could stay overnight at a farm or ranch.

"This is a niche for small farms — the direct relationships with their customers, whether it's farmers markets or having people actually come out to the farm," Leff said.

She urged county planning departments to not impede such efforts with excessive rules or permit fees. She said farmers need to let their insurance companies know that visitors are coming — and not let them drive tractors or climb ladders.

Cindy Lashbrook expects perhaps 1,200 visitors to her farm near Livingston for the ninth annual Pick and Gather at Riverdance Farms on June 1 and 2.

Festival patrons will pick blueberries and cherries, see old-fashioned farm equipment, enjoy music and dancing, and kayak in the adjacent Merced River.

They will have to watch out for hazards such as fire ants and squirrel holes, Lashbrook said, but that's part of life on the farm. "When you see these kids with blueberries and cherries smashed on their faces, they're just having fun," she said.

Chris Murphy, Sierra Pacific Refrigerated Services CEO and an event promoter in Modesto, said the city's connection to "American Graffiti" often is mentioned by visitors. Lucas based the 1973 movie on his memories of cruising as a teenager on 10th and 11th streets.

Visitors can read all about it on 25 kiosks installed last year along downtown streets. And if they snag a good spot at the Graffiti Summer parade next month, they can see Lucas himself serving as grand marshal.

"George Lucas is coming to cruise for the first time in 51 years on June 7," Murphy said.

People who would rather travel by train also can take part in valley tourism, said Dan Leavitt, manager of regional initiatives for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission.

Amtrak runs six round trips a day — four between Bakersfield and Oakland, and two between Bakersfield and Stockton. The trains have spacious seats, laptop plug-ins, food, drinks and other comforts.

"It's really a great way to see the San Joaquin Valley, to see the corridor," Leavitt said.

He said the line could serve as a feeder into the first leg of the state's high-speed rail system, which could open in 2022 between the Merced area and Southern California. That system, reaching 220 mph in some places, could be a tourist attraction in itself, he said.

Dave Koehler, coordinator of the San Joaquin River Partnership, said the waterway could become a major attraction thanks to restoration of a long-dry stretch near Firebaugh and other efforts. Boaters, anglers, duck hunters and wildlife watchers could find plenty to enjoy, he said.

Koehler described how the San Joaquin starts high in the southern Sierra Nevada and passes by farms and wildlife refuges west of Merced and Modesto on its way to San Francisco Bay.

"I think we have this incredible resource, from source to sea, in our region," he said.

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