Couple to determine if Walla Walla is ‘Friendliest Town' in US

Officials will hit social networks like Facebook and Twitter to spread the word of their arrival.

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WALLA WALLA - It will start with a "hello."

When you're in the running for the title "Friendliest Town" in America, you must begin your first impression with a proper greeting.

That's what local officials intend to do when Jason and Nikki Wynn pull into Walla Walla on Thursday accompanied by a panel of USA Today and Best of the Road Rally representatives.

Walla Walla will be the second-to-last of the six communities the Wynns are visiting in a three-week road rally organized by USA Today and Rand McNally. The community garnered the most votes - 266 - of any other in an online poll to find the friendliest community in the country. The Wynns are visiting all of them on their journey to choose which one gets the title.

Though the exact time of the Wynns' arrival is not yet known, city, tourism, downtown and a host of other representatives are planning to welcome them flash-mob-style at the crown jewel of the local park system, Pioneer Park. About 500 miles before the Wynns get here, downtown officials will get a call with an estimated time of arrival.

Officials will hit social networks like Facebook and Twitter to spread the word. The hope is to generate a sort of welcome wagon of community members at the park.

If all goes well, there will be music. There will be a presentation of the proverbial key to the city. A gift basket of Walla Walla's quintessential bounty - Klicker strawberries, Walla Walla Sweet Onions, a Walla Walla Sweets baseball cap, to name a few things - will be given as a gift. If there's time, the couple will get an escorted tour of the park, from the aviary to the historic fountain. If they wish to go out that night, they'll be told about the live music at downtown tasting rooms and offered a round.

They will retire that night to a room compliments of the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center. From there the community will have just a little over 24 hours to make a convincing case that Walla Walla is the country's friendliest small town.

Four other two-person teams are on similar journeys, visiting towns that made the finals for most fun, most patriotic, most scenic and best for food. The final destination for each team will be Los Angeles on July 15. On that day, the winning communities will be named, as will a winning travel team judged by content from their various travel logs from their cross-country adventures.

The winning team gets $10,000. The communities get publicity. According to the Road Rally website, the top towns and points of interest will be written about by USA Today and featured in the 2013 Rand McNally Road Atlas. They will also be recognized at www.bestoftheroad.com.

Local officials are confident Walla Walla will stand out in its class. The challenge though is figuring out how to convey friendliness.

"It's much more esoteric, I think, than ‘most patriotic' where you can see it," said Tourism Walla Walla Chief Executive Officer Michael Davidson. "I think we're just going to kind of show them Walla Walla."

Other communities the Wynns are visiting: Mount Airy, N.C.; Nacogdoches, Texas; Valdosta, Ga.; Woodward, Okla.; and Lake Havasu City, Ariz.

Representatives from the Marcus Whitman, Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance and Union-Bulletin have been in on the planning for the visit. A special ad is expected to be published in the paper greeting the Wynns. Local musician Mark Brown has composed a song expected to be recorded this week for the pair.

Jennifer Northam, events and public relations manager for the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, said officials have an array of ideas for the couple. A hot air balloon ride piloted by Walla Walla City Councilman Jerry Cummins. A carriage ride through downtown Walla Walla. A tour of a working vineyard. Some time on one of the Valley's numerous golf courses. But how they want to spend their time exploring the community will ultimately be up to them, she said.

"We don't want to manufacture the experience too much," Northam said.

"I believe that Walla Walla is a friendly town. And I believe that will come through no matter what they choose to do."

One event that is set in stone is a Friday evening trip to the Fort Walla Walla Amphitheater, where the Wynns will take in a performance of the summer musical "Hairspray." Northam said special recognition for the pair will likely be arranged.

If the couple is here long enough Saturday, a trip to the Walla Walla Valley Farmers Market would be the perfect cherry on top of the visit, Northam said.

No matter what aspects of the community are highlighted or which activities the Wynns choose, officials believe the contact with the people who call it home will be the most compelling argument for the friendliness of the town.

"This is Walla Walla," Davidson said. "It's a little slice of what we're all about."

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