July 27, 2014

Campaign touts Valley tourism

A new campaign promotes tourism in the San Joaquin Valley, which draws far fewer visitors than other parts of California.

Tourists who like fruit will find that little grows in San Francisco, or in Yosemite National Park, for that matter.

Fear not. They can stop in the San Joaquin Valley, which lies between these famous places, and find true local flavor at a produce stand.

A new campaign aims to boost visitor spending in the Valley, which is a tiny part of the state’s tourism sector. It features a website, www.sjrivervalley.com, and brochures about attractions in the five-county stretch from San Joaquin to Fresno.

The choices include rivers, historical sites, state parks and other places not directly related to agriculture, but farming is central to the campaign. Hundreds of crops grow in the Valley, and it produces plenty of beef and poultry, too.

“In Oregon, we don’t have the fresh fruit, the big variety,” said Theresa Anastasio, shopping Thursday afternoon at an Escalon produce and antique store called Marsh Produce at The Barn. The business, known simply as The Barn under a previous owner, sits right on Highway 120, a major route to Yosemite.

“It seems to me about 90 percent are tourists – a lot of Bay Area, Sweden, China, Germany, Italy,” said Justine Marsh, who owns the store with husband Ron Marsh.

A coalition of local leaders and other supporters launched the campaign under the banner of the San Joaquin River Valley Travel and Tourism Project. They noted that the five counties get only about 3 percent of statewide visitor spending, which has reached $110 billion a year, employing nearly 1 million people.

“We should not just be considered a stop on your way to or from somewhere,” said Virginia Madueño, a former Riverbank mayor who is working on the campaign through her public relations firm. “We should be a viable destination of our own.”

The effort is funded by an anonymous donor, Madueño said, and grew out of a conference in Turlock last year on Valley tourism. Speakers there offer ideas such as riverside wildlife refuges, farms that offer tours or overnight stays, and the tributes to cruising in Modesto.

The website features Stanislaus County spots such as the McHenry Mansion, the Oakdale Cowboy Museum and Turlock Lake. Visitors to Merced County might head to the Castle Air Museum, Hilmar Cheese Co. or a route that showcases blooming orchards.

Lodi already thrives as a place to make and taste wine, but other San Joaquin County destinations await. The Escalon store, in a converted dairy barn, has antiques and collectibles on one side and produce and other food on the other.

The watermelons and sweet corn come from Van Groningen & Sons, near Manteca. Copper Kettle Kitchen in San Andreas supplies jellies. The owners plan to add pies.

Anastasio had come from Prineville, Ore., to visit family in the Escalon area. She made sure to stop by Oakdale Cheese & Specialties, several miles east on 120.

“The boys wanted the squeaky cheese,” she said, referring to the gouda curds the company makes, along with several other products.

A separate party from Oregon visited The Barn on Thursday on the way back from Yosemite. Kim Lamont and her husband, David Connaway, bought sweet corn and an old salt shaker.

“Everybody likes to shop at antique stores,” Lamont said.

The campaign has help from Visit California, a nonprofit group that promotes tourism statewide.

“Regional efforts like this help ensure that those visitors and the tourism dollars they bring with them find their way into the local economy,” said Caroline Beteta, president and chief executive officer, in a news release.

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