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Santa Maria Valley Feeling Left Out After AAA Snub

Tourism: The area and its attractions aren't even mentioned in new Auto Club publication.


SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Somewhere between the red tile roofs of Santa Barbara and the white sands of Pismo Beach, a chunk of the Central Coast appears to have vanished.

The growing city of Santa Maria? Gone. Vandenberg Air Force Base? Invisible. The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve? Good question.

According to the newest guidebook from the Automobile Club of Southern California, the entire Santa Maria Valley, with 120,000 residents, dozens of hotels and restaurants, nationally known wineries and barbecue, an airport, an Amtrak stop--and, yes, an Auto Club office--doesn't exist.

This came as a surprise to Karen White, a reporter for the Santa Maria Times. When a review copy of "California's Central Coast: Where to Go--From Locals Who Know" landed on her desk this week, White thumbed through the book and laughed out loud.

"I thought, 'Let's see how they cover us,' and discovered we're not even on the map," White said. "Not Santa Maria, Guadalupe, Los Alamos or Nipomo. It was too absurd to believe."

The local Chamber of Commerce, many of whose members offer AAA discounts, called the Auto Club for answers. Auto Club officials offered explanations and a promise to do better next time.

Unlike AAA's tour books, which are free to members, the Central Coast guide is one of a series of books sold in California bookstores. Launched in 1993 as a freebie, it soon became clear that the guides would have to generate income to continue.

"When you're putting out a book that has to pay for itself, you wind up having to make some agonizing decisions about what goes in and what doesn't," said Jeff Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

AAA hasn't turned a cold shoulder to the Santa Maria Valley. The region has been featured in half a dozen other AAA publications, spotlighting the area's vineyards and barbecue spots.

Editors of the Central Coast guide considered the pros and cons of every entry, Spring said. Their decision to skip the Santa Maria Valley was influenced, in part, by Auto Club members.

"People with four days to visit the Central Coast ask for details about Santa Barbara rather than Santa Maria," Spring said. "It's a decision that was made to stay competitive, and I'm sure that it will be revisited."

Which is good news to Bob Hatch, president of the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce. With tourism bringing about $10 million a year to the region, being left out of a well-respected guidebook can hurt, he said.

"AAA is a prestigious name and it has to have some effect," Hatch said. "We'll never know who may have looked at us in that particular book and decided to visit. According to them, we're not here."

Among the missing sites and sights are the town of Los Alamos, with its ancient oaks, affordable antique shops and low-key cafes; Guadalupe, a picture postcard of mid-century bungalows, quaint downtown and a train station where Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner stops; and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve, an 18-mile stretch of coastal dunes estimated to be 18,000 years old and home to 200 species of birds.

Also absent is the Foxen Canyon wine trail, a country road lined with world-class vineyards that draw thousands of visitors a year.

"I'm as amazed as anyone that they would leave us out," said Richard Dore, an owner of Foxen Vineyard. "Considering the size of the city and the number of famous wineries in this area, it seems a book claiming to know the region would at least put us on the map."

Many of the local wineries count on drop-in traffic for their tasting rooms.

"If people don't know there's a city and places to stay while they explore the area, it has to affect us," Dore said.

Amber Williams, a spokeswoman for Cambria Vineyards, shares Dore's concerns.

"You have to wonder what the effect is, to be left out of a publication like that," Williams said. "It's got to hurt a bit, financially.

"Maybe, though, once people stop at some of the places the book does actually mention, they'll realize there's more to the area than they knew. Maybe they'll find us anyway."

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