Capital City Lake Murray Country markets Midlands under the watchful eye of the area’s greatest chee
Lake Murray, SC (Paul Kirby) When people think of Lake Murray, they think of different things. Some think of fishing, others swimming, still others may think of sailing lazily along, while another crowd may have zipping along in a speedboat with the wind whipping through their hair as their own idea of recreation. For Miriam Atria and her team at Capital City/Lake Murray Country, they think of all that and much more!
Capital City/Lake Murray Country is a regional tourism district whose purpose is to promote Lake Murray and the counties, towns, and communities that surround it. That includes Lexington, Richland, Saluda, and Newberry counties, and all that lies within them. Today, that district is a team of highly effective, expert marketers that promote us across the globe. Many years ago, however, it was just an idea in search of the right leader. In 1983, the lucky group that was trying to run it found that person in Miriam Atria, the tourism district’s executive director, and the most enthusiastic cheerleader for this, or any area I’ve ever met.
To understand what makes Miriam the best in her field, you have to understand a little about where she came from and her younger life. Miriam Atria is not a native of South Carolina, she’s actually from points north of here, more specifically from North Carolina. She was orphaned at a young age by a mom that couldn’t or wouldn’t be saddled with the responsibility of raising her children; Miriam has both a brother and a sister. Her mother put her in an Masonic orphanage as a child with a hollow promise to return and get her and her siblings as soon as she got “back on her feet.”
For some children this would be devastating. Some would take to drugs, become alcoholics, have babies and then turn from the responsibilities of raising them too, all under the excuse of an absent home life and a bad hand dealt from a young age. Not for Miriam, I assure you. For her, this was just one of the obstacles in her life. She would first face this as the beginning of a lifetime of overcoming obstacles; a molding of one of the strongest, most driven women I have ever met. Where some would cry, pout, and talk about how unfair things were, Miriam simply decided she would pull on her big girl boots and make a way for herself.
Miriam quickly learned the life skills she needed to cope, got some education at small Chowan College in Murfressboro, NC and got a job. She had some fun, but after a while she got serious about making something of herself and ended up in the insurance business in Charlotte. There, a boss with some brains saw something in young Miriam that’s still alive and bright in her today; he saw a woman who was creative and could market anything she believed in. He put her to work and let her go, letting her excel creatively.
Later she went to work for Blue Cross Blue Shield of SC. About the time Blue Cross was in a restructuring period, a group of businessmen around Lake Murray began meeting to talk about how to get more people to come enjoy the area. Some of those men are legends of the region. Bobby Long, Charlie Higgins, Ship Shipley, and Ray Clepper were all men who had businesses on or around the lake and thought if they all worked together, they might get more people to visit and spend their money here. They formed the Lake Murray Tourism and Recreation Association and began to try and promote the region.
In 1981, the Capital City/Lake Murray Country region was adopted by the SC State Legislature as a regional tourism district to make things official. Most of the original businessmen were on or influenced the first board member selections, and the SCDepartment of Park’s Recreation and Tourism brought the program in under the regional tourism organizations. Soon they realized they needed a leader to take the reins and make a real effort at telling people what a great place this was; Someone who would say, “come, enjoy, stay awhile,” and last, but certainly not least, spend some of your money here too. Then something miraculous happened; Miriam Atria was leaving Blue Cross and was looking for a job. They found and hired her, and boy was that the right move!
When Miriam took the helm, Capital City/Lake Murray Country wasn’t much more than a concept. They had the “official” designation, a tiny office about the size of a closet, one filing cabinet, and drawers full of letters asking for information on the area. Immediately, Miriam jumped in! She began to answer those letters, she went to trade shows and conventions, she stretched her allocated dollars and asked for more from just about everyone she met. She managed the grants from SCPRT, she asked and received a tad from the Department of Natural Resources, she begged, she borrowed, she did everything but steal to fund the operation. That first year, her little budget was just $40,000. With that she got started telling everyone she could what a good idea it was to come to Lake Murray Country for all the reasons I mentioned in the opening paragraphs.
Slowly, people began to listen. How could they do anything else? Miriam Atria is a small woman in stature, but a giant in enthusiasm. She’s a natural sales rep who is creative and energetic. Eventually, she grew the staff, the message, and the reach. She had our area in magazines, newspapers, and other trade publications across the nation and even the world; come eat, stay, play, and enjoy Capital City/ Lake Murray Country and all it has to offer!
In 1988, she was trying to think of a new way to draw attention. The brand name “Jewel of SC,” was created for Lake Murray. She also wanted everyone to come together as a community and have an event we all could enjoy. She knew everyone loved the lake in the summer, the Fourth of July was one of America’s favorite holidays, and the two seemed to be the most popular time of the year on the water. Miriam did a little brainstorming, and after realizing that patriotism was at a high in the US, the annual Fourth of July Fireworks Display and Boat Parade was born in her mind.
At first it was held at Bombing Range Island. As it evolved, it was split in two, one show firing from the island near the dam, and the second from Dreher Island State Park, so that everyone could enjoy it and for safety reasons. They simulcast it with music on the radio each year so the colors danced across the sky. It was a huge hit, and has been going on ever since!
Each year, just the events of the Fourth cost about $100,000! Of that Miriam receives a mere $5,000 from SCE&G who owns the lake. The remainder she gets from sponsors like Lexington Medical Center, Nephron Pharmaceuticals and First Community Bank and by raising money during the winter months. She feeds people, offers them a drink, tells them her plans, and has been successful in getting the sponsor dollars. Her enthusiasm is contagious and if you’re around her long, you’ll have it too!
Miriam isn’t one that hears no very well. Take the century old home that houses the district’s offices, visitor’s center, museum, and a souvenir shop that is now being added a bit at a time. This beautiful old home sits on North Lake Drive near the Irmo entrance to the dam. It wasn’t always here, and it was no small task getting it there.
A staffer came into the office one day crying.. The home had been in her family for years and the land was being sold and the home torn down. It was full of history and charm. Once Miriam saw it up on St. Andrews Road, heard its history, and knew it was going to be bulldozed, she suggested the house be donated to the organization and then moved. In Miriam’s mind, it was being moved if she had to take it apart and haul it with her car one board at a time.
The first house mover she approached said it couldn’t be done. The next she consulted with said maybe, but had a list of obstacles to overcome. Miriam took the list of what was stopping them, and one by one, she checked them off as they fell to her relentless spirit.
All of the cable and powerlines would need to be moved as the house came down the road. When a bakery said they couldn’t do without their power because it would ruin all their pies, Miriam offered to buy the whole lot, pies for everyone! When it was discovered that Prosperity’s Georgia Pacific plant fed directly from the SCE&G plant behind the dam, and moving the house would cut their power, she set about convincing their management to be without that electricity for 12 hours. This was something they said they just could not do! They said, “We only shut down twice a year, Christmas and the Fourth of July, this will not happen!” Somewhere in that statement, Miriam heard, “It’s possible, but not likely.” Miriam went to the top of their management chain, made her pitch, and eventually the power was cut! They would run off auxiliary generators for 12-hours; I mean everyone needs to test their generators right! One by one, Miriam overcame every stumbling block, took away every excuse, and made everyone believe the house WAS going to be moved, something she knew all along!
On July 19th of 1995, 182 workers went to work at midnight, and by 6 a.m. the next morning, the house sat on its new property. Along the way, people lined the road, tailgated, and watched the spectacle that people had said would never happen. Miriam and company had raised the money, heard the excuses, overcome them all, and had the office they needed and deserved. After 14 months of renovations, Capital City/Lake Murray Country had a fine new Visitor’s Center and offices they could be proud of, right where it should be; just across the street from Miriam’s “Jewel of SC,” Lake Murray.
Now, the days of the little office with the filing cabinet, the staff, the budget, and the mission of Capital City/Lake Murray Country has changed. The budget is over $1 million annually and comes from a number of sources. All four counties pitch in, nearby towns give some of their accommodations tax monies, other funds are pooled, and eventually all the dollars come together for this true regional effort. Somehow Team Miriam pulls it together year after year.
The staff of marketers at Lake Murray Country travel the world to trade shows letting people know the virtues of the Midlands and Lake Murray. They keep us in magazines, on national TV, make bids to bring world class events here, and grow the number of heads on beds as tourists come from everywhere just to enjoy what we have to offer. They talk fishing and sailing, but they also talk arts, entertainment, the world-class zoo, and all the great places to eat and visit.
This summer, Miriam and her crew brought the FLW Championship, the Super Bowl of Bass fishing, back to Lake Murray. Just a few weeks later, the Solar Eclipse passed right over our heads and hundreds of thousands came from across the world to get a good look. Of course, the CCLMC staff was all hands-on deck for both of these events, right in the middle of it all. Each of those visitors spent money in our stores and restaurants, stayed in our hotels, motels, and campgrounds, and generally enjoyed all the things we know are great about this place we live.
I sometimes wonder if that little group of businessmen ever knew what a great deal they were getting when they hired Miriam. Even while promoting the lake, she’s produced and directed The Columbia Boat Show, the SC RV Show and dealt with golf tournaments, flotillas of boats, tons of fishing tournaments, and just about everything else you can think of.Heck, she was THE key player in hosting the Russian Olympic Sailing Team to our corner of the world when the Olympics were held in Atlanta; her own idea of Lake Murray diplomacy!
In her personal life, she’s managed to marry a great, supportive man, raise twin boys, and have a little bit of life left for herself. She’s a double shot of energy, always ready to tell people about her next idea, a project, a new way to showcase her jewel, our “Jewel of SC,” Lake Murray.
I asked Miriam recently when enough was enough; when would it be time to call it quits, take a deep breath, and retire, after all she has 34 years of this behind her. With a laugh, a wave of her hand, and every hair in place she said, “Honey, I don’t have time to take it easy. There are more people somewhere that still haven’t heard about this great lake, the wonderful people, all the great things there are here around us to do and see. When everyone has heard of us and had the opportunity to come visit here, when they’ve all visited the 'Jewel of South Carolina,' I’ll be finished!” Truthfully, I’m not sure that day will ever come.
You can find Capital City/Lake Murray Country on the internet at https://www.lakemurraycountry.com/