WALLA WALLA -- Last year they came for the company. This time around Rand McNally is sending a pair of road warriors to the community for a taste of the cuisine.
Walla Walla, named last year Friendliest Small Town in America in Rand McNally and USA Today's Best of the Road contest, is in the running for one of the 2012 Best Small Towns in America, this time in the Best for Food category.
The community garnered enough online votes to rank third among the six semi-finalists. Walla Walla got 247 votes in the food category. The top vote-getter was Lewiston, N.Y., with 806 votes. Burnsville, Minn., came in second with 580 votes. To pick the winner, a two-person team will visit Walla Walla, as well as the five other semi-finalist communities. Others in the running are Denton, Texas; Santa Fe, N.M.; and Bloomington, Ind.
The 2012 Best Small Towns finalists were chosen from more than 650 competing destinations, according to contest information. Walla Walla is one of four communities returning from last year's rally. Other categories are Most Beautiful, Most Patriotic, Friendliest and Most Fun.
Five two-person amateur traveling teams will be assigned a category and hit up each spot in a cross-country road trip documented with video, photos and blog entries. The chronicle of their adventures will determine the winners, according to the contest rules.
Representatives in each town are asked simply to show the guests a great time. That can include tours, special events or whatever else might be cooked up. Winners and points of interest in more than 20 categories between Washington, D.C. and Washington state will be recognized on bestoftheroad.com, written about by USA Today and featured in the 2014 Rand McNally Road Atlas.
The four-week contest, which is also a competition for the road travelers vying for $10,000, starts June 15. That means local officials will be putting their heads together to whip up an impression-worthy visit, said Tourism Walla Walla Executive Director Michelle Liberty.
Liberty said planning is expected to begin first thing next Monday. She said she's not certain whether winning a title last year will make a follow-up win more difficult. However, having a targeted category may work in the community's favor.
"It's nice that it's targeted. Then you can really focus on something," she said. "We're determined to make them fall in love with the place."
She said visits to restaurants and with farmers will inevitably be part of the visit. "It's a moveable feast kind of thing," Liberty said.
Officials won't know which team is coming to Walla Walla until the kickoff next month. The tour ends in Seattle July 15.
The five teams are: "MidLife Roadtrip:" Sandra McKenna of Palm Harbor, Fla., and Rick Griffin of Jonesboro, Ga., two friends sharing a love of food and adventure; "Two for the Road:" Dusty and Nikki Green of Spicewood, Texas, "Texas Panhandle natives, now citizens of the world, ready to rally."; "Road Bros:" experienced roadtrippers Mike Shubic of Phoenix and Brian Cox of Dunedin, Fla.; "Fresh Traveler:" Patricia Serrano and Brandon Li, of New York City, a "big city girl and a small town boy looking forward to adventure;" and "Rogue Riders:" Jennifer Jordon and Robert Schatz, of Broomfield, Colo., on a permanent road trip, living spontaneously, according to USA Today.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.