The western Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney is home to 6,800 people and the world's only "true weather forecasting groundhog." Every Feb. 2, as many as 30,000 people make the trek to Gobbler's Knob to see if Phil the groundhog will see his shadow and foretell six more weeks of winter. As America's rural population dwindles and many small-town Main Streets disappear, Punxsutawney is grateful for the attention Phil brings.

"There isn't another town in the world that wouldn't welcome that kind of exposure and that kind of name recognition," says Mike Johnston, member of the inner circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, which plans each year's Groundhog Day events. "Everybody who lives in Punxsutawney can tell you a story about being in White River, South Dakota; Anchorage, Alaska, or some equally remote place, and when people find out you're from Punxsutawney, there's some recognition and enthusiasm. They know it's the Groundhog Day town."

"The event is ultimately extremely important to the community," adds Johnston, whose name within the inner circle is Big Flake Maker. "It has helped us maintain our downtown."

Many small towns have not been so lucky. Downtowns across the nation have been forced to close because many local small businesses, besieged by the Wal-Marts of the world, can no longer make a go of it. At the same time, large-scale, industrial farming has replaced the family farm. There is little opportunity for young people in a small town with no industry -- a fact that has led to a mass exodus from failing rural towns. Today, only 17% of Americans live outside metropolitan areas. 

However, some small towns are not resigned to oblivion. They have developed creative ways to attract visitors and boost their economies. Agricultural festivals, such as the Gilroy Garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif., or the Georgia Sorghum Festival in Blairsville, Ga., have successfully put towns back on the map.

Elaine Austin, executive director of Potato Days, held in Barnesville, Minn., explained that the annual celebration of its agricultural crop attracts more than 14,000 people to the town of 2,200. Visitors, who are drawn in by events like potato-peeling contests and mashed-potato sculpturing, have come from all 50 states and four countries. "We've even had people move to town because they liked what they saw when they came to the festival," Austin says.

"The community wanted to unite the town and the country, and wanted to create some good memories for visitors," Austin says. "We wanted to make people aware of the major potato-producing area here."

Many small towns make money, not on the festivals themselves, but on the associated boost in population and from the goodwill an event generates. "The Potato Days events are free, but we charge for souvenirs and food," Austin says. "Yet, the whole community benefits from the boost in the town's population during the event -- especially eating places and service stations. The motel and campgrounds are always full."

"The Groundhog Club really tries very hard not to make Groundhog Day about money," Johnston says. "It is a free event. Obviously we're really happy to sell you a souvenir, but from the event standpoint, we try not to make it about money."

Yet, Groundhog Day does bring money into Punxsutawney, and because the small town has only so many services it can sell, the tourist dollars spread out into the surrounding region. "We have only 87 hotel rooms," Johnston notes. "If we have 1,000 people, or 25,000, at our event, all our hotel rooms are sold and all of our restaurants are busy."

The benefit to Punxsutawney's economy lasts well beyond a single week in February, Johnston explains. "We have a huge flux of people for a day, but it's kind of like throwing gasoline on a fire -- you get a big flare, then it steadies out."

Punxsutawney is developing a year-round tourist market, as people come to visit Phil and Gobbler's Knob every day, Johnston says. Other small towns have mirrored Punxsutawney's efforts and tried to boost their economies by building a permanent attraction that draws in tourists 365 days a year.

Metropolis, Ill., Superman's "official" hometown, boasts a giant steel sculpture of the Man of Steel. Darwin, Minn., has built an attraction around the world's largest ball of twine wrapped by one person. Reinersville, Ohio, displays Big Muskie's bucket, part of a giant earth-moving machine, as a memorial to the region's declining surface mining industry. Paris, Texas, has a thriving tourist economy, boosted in large part by visitors who come to see the town's 65-foot tall, "Texanized" replica of the Eiffel Tower.

"Nobody really believes there is a giant tower wearing a cowboy hat in rural Texas," says Mindy Moree of the local chamber of commerce. "People stop by all the time to get their photo taken under the tower. Several couples have gotten married under our Eiffel tower."

Moree explained that the tower, which will appear in an upcoming television commercial for Best Western, brings people to Paris, where they can then enjoy the town's other tourist amenities, such as historical homes, history museums, and antique stores.

Creative attractions and celebrations can be the lure that brings visitors who then enjoy a small town's unique charms. Despite high gas prices, domestic road trips are a popular vacation choice, and city dwellers often travel to get a taste of small-town hospitality.

While tourism is not Punxsutawney's only industry, it has become a small but thriving part of the town's economy, according to Johnston. "Tourism has become important to Punxsutawney," he says. "Without question, Phil and Groundhog Day have had a very positive economic effect on our community."

Published on: Jan 26, 2007