MONTROSS, Virginia — By next spring, people planning to visit the Northern Neck or simply searching for an interesting outing should have a new resource to make travel there more memorable.
The Artisan Trail Network is essentially a constantly updated online map of artists, artisans, historic sites, galleries, restaurants, recreational spots and farms that offer agri-tourism opportunities in the Northern Neck.
When it comes online, it will include spots in Westmoreland, Richmond, Northumberland, Lancaster and King George counties.
Since last spring, a group of artisans, artists, government officials and other residents of the Northern Neck and King George have been slowly moving toward creating the trail, which is modeled on versions already in place in and around Charlottesville, Staunton, Shenandoah County and Bedford.
Other, similar trails are in the planning and implementation stages in Rappahannock, Henry, Accomack, Page, Frederick and Rockingham counties, as well as the Williamsburg region.
At an informational session last Wednesday in Montross, trail organizers were joined by artists, artisans, and farmers who may become a part of this new trail.
Kane Lloyd from Westmoreland Berry Farm said his business — which is already working on bringing customers into the Northern Neck — is excited about the new effort.
"We think we can carve out some interesting agri-tourism activities that would work perfectly with a trail like this," he said.
Andy Pitts, a maker of artistic and fine furniture near Heathsville in Northumberland County, said he and other artisans are excited about how the effort could boost both tourism and their sales.
"The Artisans Center of Virginia used to be a studio in Waynesboro where customers came to buy artisan's wares," said Pitts. "After the recession helped shut that down, the focus is now on getting customers out to the artisans to buy those wares."
The key component of these rapidly expanding artisan trails is a website where trail participants maintain their own web pages.
Even though each trail is launched with a printed brochure that uses regional imagery and a map and highlights trail participants, the web site allows each participant to post real-time updates.
Pitts and Artisans Center director Sherri Smith told the lunchtime gathering that the Northern Neck trail is well on its way to becoming a uniquely interactive visitor experience.
The group has already come up with the required $15,000 in startup fees, thanks to the Northern Neck Chesapeake Bay Regional Partnership and King George County.
In the coming months, there will be other gatherings to settle on a name for the trail, as well as the selection of images for branding.
Pitts noted that a major fundraising event is already planned for this fall at Rices Hotel/Hughlett's Tavern in Heathsville, where artists and artisans will be asked to sell $100 items at a 50 percent discount. Those items will then be sold to attendees at full price.
Smith, who expects the Northern Neck trail to launch sometime next spring, said a few things must happen before a participant is accepted.
In addition to anticipated first-year costs that range from $90 to $170, there will also be a site visit from a team connected to the trail.
Smith said the team will look at basic retail concerns, things like "having a spot where at least one car can park, the availability of a restroom and no snarling dogs that race at you when you get out of your car."
The director, who said that artisan trails got started in the Asheville, North Carolina, area decades ago, said trail participants can be open anywhere from seven days a week to "by appointment only."
She noted that in all regions, the wealth of talented artisans and artists becomes a much better tourism draw when those people are linked and listed to great historic attractions like Stratford Hall or spots like Westmoreland State Park.
Three people are already registered on the Northern Neck Artisan Trail Network: Pitts, Susan Tilt and Spirit Too in Colonial Beach and Zekiah Glass in the Farnham area of Richmond County.
Information from: The Free Lance-Star, http://www.fredericksburg.com/