NEWFANE -- In the days and weeks after Tropical Storm Irene there was a lot of rebuilding going on around Vermont.
Towns and the state had roads, bridges and culverts to rebuild, property owners had homes to renovate and build, and business owners had to clean up damaged inventory, property, and structures.
The state’s marketing and tourism industry was no different.
Some of Vermont was off limits in the fall of 2011, but plenty of roads were open and that winter ski mountains were eager to get the word out that Vermont was open for business.
Megan Smith, Vermont’s Commissioner of Tourism and Marketing, said she visited the West River Valley in the days after Tropical Storm Irene pounded the state.
She heard over and over that businesses needed to get the word out that they were open, but there was so much rebuilding going on that the business owners found it hard to organize and get that message out.
From those conversations, Smith said, came the idea of bringing together regional development leaders, business owners and chamber of commerce staff to tour the small businesses and art galleries, so that when they were asked for recommendations they had a direct experience to work from.
"The town governments were overwhelmed," Smith said Saturday during the Little Gems Revitalization Tour, which went from Brattleboro on up to Stratton, Jamaica and Windham. "A lot fell through the cracks and now we’re trying to see what we can do to follow that up.
Early Saturday morning a group of about 25 met at the Saxtons River Distillery and Fulcrum Arts building just outside of Brattleboro on Route 30.
There were heads of local chambers of commerce, business owners and regional and state development officials
After touring the facility in Brattleboro, and hearing from the business owners there, the group climbed in a small tour bus headed north, stopping in Newfane, Townshend, Jamaica and Londonderry.
They stopped at businesses, art galleries and historic sites along Route 30, and after stopping at a business, that business owner jumped on board to visit the next site up the road to get familiarized with other places they might be able to send tourists.
"It’s so much more helpful when you can touch and feel it," said Smith. "You can’t describe something you only saw on the Internet. Now I’ve seen these places and I can send people down here, and everybody here will feel the same way. You can only really describe something you experience."
Smith said that after Irene the state considered nominating the Route 30 corridor for the federal Byway program, which brings federal marketing dollars into the region to promote the area.
The federal program was halted due to funding issues soon after the 2011 storm and Smith said the state leaders began coming up with ways to emulate the idea on its own.
Smith said she routinely takes travel writers from around the country, as well as from around the world, to visit specific tourist stops, but this was the first time she led a group of Vermonters to places right outside their own towns.
And while the tour Saturday was the first of its kind in Vermont, Smith said it was something that could, and should be done in regions throughout the state.
It takes some coordination, but it is is not very expensive and, she said, the payoff is great.
"This is not the only region that is going through this rebuilding, and all over the state there are people in towns who don’t really know what is going on in the next community up the road," Smith said.
"There is this disconnect all over the state and I hope this can become a model for us to use in other regions."
Berta Maginniss is the executive director of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. She said she has seen Big Picture Farm goat milk caramels at Hildene, the Lincoln family summer home in Manchester. On Saturday in Townshend she met Lucas Farrell, the co-owner, and heard about the company’s national awards, its business model, and its goats.
Maginniss bought a box of caramel and said the experience was going to make it easy for her to recommend a visit to someone who was looking for an driving adventure out of Manchester.
"It’s wonderful to see where they’re made and put a face and a story with what you’re getting," Maginniss said. "People come to our community and spend two or three days, but just 30 minutes away there is a whole other world to explore. That’s really a rare thing when you are at a destination and you have so many other things to go see."
As the bus pulled into each destination the artists or business owner was waiting outside to take the group on a 10 minute tour.
Robert DuGrenier, an internationally known glass artist, is one of the business owners who has been involved with the post-Irene rebuilding discussion from the start.
On Saturday he led a tour through his gallery and studio, talking about his work that ranges from small glass hermit crab homes, to installations in hotels and stores in London, Tokyo and Istanbul.
For him, the tour Saturday was a way to get chamber directors and development leaders from outside Townshend to encourage visitors to stop and see what was happening along Route 30.
"The most important thing is to get people to slow down and stop," he said. "There are so many great treasures up here that aren’t known. People whiz by and they don’t know what they’re missing. I do work all over the world, and people down the road don’t even know I’m here. It’s all about awareness."
The tour started at 9:30 a.m. in Brattleboro. They stopped at the Newfane Village Green and the West Townshend Country Store. They learned about cheese making at the Taylor Farm in Londonderry, admired the art at Elaine Beckwith Gallery in Jamaica and toured the gardens at the Windham Hill Inn.
Chris Forbes works at the I-91 Vermont Welcome Center. She lives nearby but said she had never been at most of the stops on the Little Gems Familiarization Tour.
"I’ve done Route 30 for years, and we have these brochures, but it’s never really sunk in what this was really all about," Forbes said. "People stop all the time and they want to know what they can see and do. After doing something like this we can tell them."