Touring Thomaston

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 7, 2008

THOMASTON &045; After first convening in Biloxi, a group of tour guides from all over the United States and Canada switched roles when they spent the day as tourists in West Alabama, where one of their first stops was at the Alabama Rural Heritage Center.

According to Linda Vice, director of Alabama Tombigbee Tourism, the tour was meant as a means to familiarize the tour guides with the area to potentially draw in more tourism to the Black Belt. The event was part of a partnership with the Alabama Bureau of Tourism&Travel and other tourism agencies.

After first eating a locally grown meal prepared by Chef Dodd Orten, who joined the staff a few months ago, at Mama Nem’s Bistro, the group had a chance to tour the Heritage Shoppe, which boasts handmade crafts and products from more than 80 artisans and craftsmen.

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The tour came just shortly after the announcement that long-time executive director Gayle Etheridge would no longer stay on as director. According to newly elected board member Cindy Neilson, the executive director salary had been paid from grant funds over the last three years and the grant terms recently ran out.

Neilson said she and her fellow board members were torn about the circumstances, and commended Etheridge on the outstanding work she had done for the center throughout the years. Fellow board member Kathryn Friday agreed.

In addition to promoting and seeking out artists and opportunities for the center itself, Etheridge was the driving force behind the day-to-day operations of both the shop and the bistro.

But even without the leadership of a director, Neilson and the center’s supporters say the Rural Heritage Center is not going away anytime soon.

In addition to recently repopulating the with more board members, Neilson said they are meeting on a frequent basis to discuss the next steps for the center and its supporting foundation. They are also looking at expanding and diversifying their membership to include other areas. In the meantime, dedicated volunteers and kitchen staff will keep the center in operation, she said.

Hours for the Heritage Shoppe will be Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Hours for the bistro are for Friday and Saturday evenings from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. and Sunday for brunch.