JACKSONVILLE, S.C. - When Edith Birts and a group of other Jacksonville residents got together five years ago to launch a fund-raiser to pay for improvements in their town, they decided to hold a festival where they could sell dishes made from sweet potatoes.
"We knew that it was a southern dish and people were familiar with it and liked it," Ms. Birts said.
The Sweet Potato Festival dreamed up by residents in this community of 300 outside Langley draws about 1,000 people annually from South Carolina and Georgia to the Valley area. The event is held every third Saturday in October.
"The money from the festival goes back into the community for repairs for the park and repairing old abandoned homes in the community," said Ms. Birts, a Midland Valley Chamber of Commerce board member. "We wanted to make the Valley better. We all came together and decided what we could do about it."
This festival is among many collaborative efforts by residents to spur economic development and tourism to the Valley, as well as improving the quality of life there.
Such efforts have become commonplace in this area over the past 10 to 12 years, said LaWana McKenzie, Aiken County councilwoman and Clearwater resident.
Joint ventures between the Midland Valley Chamber of Commerce, Aiken County officials and Horse Creek Valley Vision 2004, an economic development organization that promotes businesses in the area, helped the Valley area play host to Olympic rowing teams representing the Ukraine, Norway, Lithuania, Finland and the United States this past summer at Langley Pond.
The Valley consists of the towns of Langley, Gloverville, Bath, Clearwater, Graniteville, Warrenville, Vaucluse and Steifeltown.
"Langley Pond rowing has brought international recognition," said Gloria Busch Johnson, spokeswoman for the chamber.
The town of Burnettown has launched the Sassafras festival, held the past three years on the first Saturday in October. The festival, which draws about 12,000 people, is a block party that offers live entertainment, crafts and vendors.
Ronnie Young, county council chairman and chamber president, said the festivals draw big crowds to the Valley. Chamber officials haven't gauged the events' economic impact.
Vision 2004 has also published two brochures on the Valley to increase tourism. One is on the Sassafras Festival and the other lists historical attractions in this region.
The brochures are located in welcome centers throughout the state.
"It's a real popular brochure. The welcome centers give our brochures to anybody coming to the Augusta area," said Lynn Kirkland, former Vision 2004 chairman.
Ms. McKenzie said that until the early 1980s, about six textile mills existed in the various towns of the Valley, located between Aiken and North Augusta. People in each town kept to themselves and operated independently of each other, she said.
Once the mills closed, Valley residents had to adjust to the mills no longer putting money into their communities.
"As a group, the Valley itself is working together, and we realize that that is how we survive," Ms. McKenzie said.
This cooperation has paid off, said Aiken County Administrator Bill Shepherd, adding that he's seen much growth in the area over the past years.
"You can attribute the (growth) to a group or general realization of the potential in the Valley and efforts by a number of groups and activities to market the Valley to capitalize on its history and culture as expressed in some of the festivals and local events," Mr. Shepherd said. "There have been efforts in a number of areas, be it recreation, tourism, promoting industry or educational promotions."
Although Valley residents want growth in the future, they're not forgetting the past, Ms. McKenzie said.
For example, Ms. McKenzie and library officials were instrumental in converting an old train depot on Huber Clay Road into a public library that also serves as a tourist attraction.
"It's the original building," Ms. McKenzie said. "We wanted to save that piece of history. We want to work our history into our present and future."
Valley residents are expecting a bright future in the areas of development and growth.
Bobby Griffin, a chamber board member, said the chamber's hoping to make Langley Pond the southeast training ground for future Olympians.
"They only have training grounds in California and up north," he said. "We're shooting for that."
Meanwhile, Burnettown officials plan to build a park behind the municipal building they hope will be a gathering spot for families throughout the Valley.
"We're hoping the park will bring everyone together," said Wayne Benson, mayor pro-tem of Burnettown.
Ms. McKenzie said she anticipates development along U.S. Highway 1 and Sage Mill industrial park in Graniteville.
Also, the chamber, the city of North Augusta, Burnettown officials and Vision 2004 are planning to develop a canoe trail from Langley Pond to the Savannah River through Horse Creek, which runs through the Valley.
"We're working with these other groups to eventually develop it so you can ride canoes and kayaks down it," Mr. Kirkland said. "That would invite tourists, vacationers and everyday people."