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by Deanna Wrenn
(June 8) BUCKHANNON --This Upshur County town may never be the same.
Not since April 13, when a story about the town's Wedding in the Hills contest hit the national Associated Press wire.
Now Buckhannon, a city of nearly 6,000 people, has a bunch of strangers walking around town, and people from as far away as Germany and Taiwan are writing to tell the community why they want to get married here.
Residents are taking all this publicity in stride.
"Anything that publicizes the area is good," said Johanna Haas, a Buckhannon resident. "I think it's a great idea."
Hundreds of articles in local newspapers around the country have been written about the giveaway since April. National newspapers, such as the New York Times and USA Today, as well as international publications, like Germany's Stars and Stripes, have also covered the story.
Officials from the Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce, the agency hosting the contest, have been interviewed by London's BBC, as well as NBC, Canada's NCB and Japan's FUJI TV.
Justin Griffith, executive director the Chamber of Commerce, said the organization's ploy to bring attention to the rural town is working, helping to build interest and get national and international attention for a community that otherwise couldn't afford it.
"We've had people write or call and say 'we're already married but we want tourist information,'" he said.
The contest is pretty simple. Contestants must write a 100-word essay describing "why we would like to be married in the hills of West Virginia." They must mail the entry to the chamber, plus a $25 entry fee.
The outdoor wedding will take place on Sept. 19, and the winners of the contest will be announced by July 15.
So far, the chamber has received more than 400 essays from all over America, as well as countries such as Germany, South Africa, Britain, Japan, Switzerland and Taiwan.
The entries will be read by a panel of about 10 judges. Each individual essay reader will rate each essay, and the scores will then be added to see who received the highest cumulative score.
Some of the entries, Griffith said, had problems. One essay was in German, several applicants didn't include the $25 fee and many exceeded the 100-word limit. The chamber wrote back to these people and told them of the problems so they could enter again if they wanted.
The giveaway is sponsored by the Travel and Tourism Committee of the Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce. The winning couple will receive an acre of land, dresses for the bride, bridesmaids and flower girl, tuxedos for the groom and the best man, hair and makeup for the wedding party, flowers, a wedding cake, food for a reception, blood tests, a $500 scholarship for the first child, a honeymoon in Florida, cellular phones, a television, furniture, dozens of other household appliances and many other gifts.
All of the prizes are donated by businesses, both in the Buckhannon area and other organizations around the country. For example, the five-day honeymoon to the Palm Island Resort was donated by the Charlotte Harbor and Gulf Islands Visitors Bureau, but the wedding cake will be made by a local business, the Red Roof Bakery.
It was Red Roof owner Mary Anne Turner-Cutright who thought of the idea for the contest and was responsible for getting all the prizes to be given away.
It's been a success for the community so far, especially with attracting visitors.
Some of the applicants for the contest, according to Griffith, wanted to first spend some time in the area to see what it was like.
"One couple spent a weekend touring the city. They really liked it. They said it helped them with their essay," Griffith said.
Residents of Buckhannon are enjoying the benefits of the publicity and the money from the travel and tourism industry.
"It's a creative idea that will help our economy. And there isn't a prettier place to have an outdoor wedding," said Carol Sheffield of Buckhannon.
Griffith said he gets about 10 calls a day asking questions about the contest, which is not very many compared to the hundreds and hundreds of calls the chamber received when the giveaway was first announced.
"We were swamped in the beginning. I think the calls should keep dying down for the most part now," he said.
Griffith and the chamber are now preparing to announce the winner of the contest.
"We would like to announce the winner by July 12 during the Upshur County Fair if at all possible," Griffith said. "The winner will be announced by July 15 at the latest."
To have a chance at being the lucky couple, applicants must be at least 18 years old and not married. Send a 100-word essay and the $25 entry fee to Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce at P.O. Box 442, Buckhannon, WV 26301. All essays must be received by July 1.