The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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June 9, 2012

Joplin a contender for nation’s friendliest city

— Joplin will have to put out its best welcome mat.

Mapmaker Rand McNally will be looking at Joplin this summer as a contender for the nation’s friendliest city title. The city is one of six finalists in the Rand McNally/USA Today “Best of the Road” contest. There are five categories.

Patrick Tuttle, director of the Joplin Convention and Visitor Bureau, said It is a big honor that can give a city a lot of national exposure in the travel industry as well as a feature in the Rand McNally atlas.

“Seven hundred cities applied and only 30 finalists were selected. We are the only city in Missouri to be in one of the categories,” Tuttle said.

Other categories are most beautiful, most fun, most patriotic and best food.

Ten teams of amateur travel bloggers will dash across the country visiting the finalists. They will decide winners in each category and announce them at the Destination Marketing Association International convention next month in Seattle.

Joplin officials don’t know yet when the judges will be here.

CVB assistant Martha Getz said the judging team will be in Joplin for two days. They will get the VIP treatment one day and be on their own the second.

Plans for the VIP greeting will have to be developed once the date of the visit is known, but it will be sometime between June 15 and July 16. The judges will blog their way across the country as they visit the finalist cities. Part of the fun will be for local residents to follow the blogs and chime in with comments to show Joplin’s interest in the event, Getz said. The blog sites will be announced.

It’s a contest that was started last year by Rand McNally and USA Today. Walla Walla, Wash., holds the current title for friendliest city.

“Walla Walla’s ‘Best of the Road’ Experience was unforgettable,” said Jennifer Northam, events and public relations manager for the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, in an email response to Globe questions. The team that judged that city “was up for anything we threw at them, and boy, did we keep them busy!”

That visit started with a police escort to bring the judges into town, a bike ride through the scenic Whitman College campus, a hot-air balloon ride, dinner and a show.

“Our main assumption going into the visit was that we actually were an incredibly friendly town. Rather than constructing a series of ‘events’ for the team, we created situations where they could interact with our people. We invited anyone and everyone to the official welcome at a local park. We took them to our bustling farmers market and let them wander among vendors and shoppers alike,” Northam said.

The experience paid off.

“Every article written about Walla Walla in the past year, it seems, has included a reference to our status as Friendliest Town,” she said. “It’s hard for us to separate the reasons people come to Walla Walla. They were coming anyway for our wine, our food, our heritage. But our tourist industry continues to grow and thrive, and our selection as Friendliest Town certainly didn’t hurt.”

Joplin will be competing against Murray, Ky.; Frisco and College Station, Texas; Cloudcroft, N.M.; and San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Not to spy on the competition, but a Globe phone call to the folks in Murray did not dislodge any specifics they might be planning to try to land the title.

But whatever they do, you can bet they’ll use “a little bit of Southern charm and Southern hospitality,” said Stephanie Butler, director of marketing for the Murray visitors bureau, in a Globe phone interview.

It’s no secret why she thinks Murray is the friendliest town.

“I think it’s the people,” she said. “We have a great community, and our community, all of our organizations and people, work well together from Murray State University to the Chamber of Commerce and the CVB, everyone here has a sense of community. We have been voted one of best 100 cities for young people for several years in a row and the most Playful USA four years in row.”

Looks like the competition is already practicing.

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