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NWA ready for spectacular 100th birthday celebration

It’s fitting that the National Watermelon Association will celebrate its 100th birthday in the state where it all began in 1914 — Georgia.

One hundred years ago, a group of watermelon growers met in Atlanta for an organizational meeting about the best ways to get their crop to market. Exactly a century later, their descendants will return to celebrate the unimagined success of the NWA.

It’s been quite a ride. In 1914, watermelons were rare on supermarket shelves. Impossible to stack, difficult to ship and surprisingly fragile (until new varieties came along a few years later), watermelon was primarily a local favorite, eaten where it was grown — often in a backyard or nearby watermelon patch.

RiverwalkThe view from the Savannah Riverfront Marriott, site of the NWA 100th birthday celebration. The hotel is connected to world-famous River Street via the River Walk, right in the heart of the city’s historic district.It’s impossible to imagine a supermarket without watermelon today. Thank the NWA for that. Relentless lobbying in Washington, DC, on behalf of growers and shippers and endless marketing efforts both in front of American consumers and through the media have raised watermelon’s status to previously unimaginable heights.

These are good times to be in the watermelon business. This is the perfect occasion to throw a party. And that is exactly what the NWA plans to do in Savannah, GA, Feb. 19-23 as it celebrates its 100th birthday in grand style.

The NWA is the oldest trade association on the fruit side of the produce industry and the second-oldest overall. The organization set the bar high for future celebrations with its Centennial blow-out in San Antonio, TX, last February. This year, NWA Executive Director Bob Morrissey promises the actual 100th birthday party will raise that bar even higher.

“The NWA staff has really had our work cut out for us the past two years with the Centennial celebration and the 100th birthday,” Morrissey said. “We spent a year planning the Centennial, and there were only five or six people who knew all the details until it all happened in Texas. Those are the same people who have been working equally hard to plan the Savannah 100th birthday celebration. It’s been an extraordinary challenge to top San Antonio, and planning these events over the last two years has certainly added to our plates, but it’s all been worth it — you only turn 100 once and we plan to make the very most of it. Certainly we did in San Antonio, and I promise the Savannah celebration will raise the bar once again.”

Take the location, for starters. It’s only fitting the NWA should return to Georgia for its birthday party. But Savannah is a city with a heritage as rich and intriguing as the NWA itself.

Just as the NWA is the oldest trade association in the produce industry, Savannah is the oldest pre-planned city in the U.S. Established in 1733, the city of Savannah became the colonial capital of the Province of Georgia and later the second state capital of Georgia. A strategic port city in the American Revolution and during the American Civil War, Savannah is today an industrial center and an important Atlantic seaport. It is Georgia’s fifth-largest city and third-largest metropolitan area.

Much of Colonial Savannah is still intact, including its historic Riverfront District. Morrissey promises that despite a busy schedule, there will be ample opportunity for conventioneers to enjoy the city.

Each year Savannah attracts millions of visitors, drawn by its Colonial and Antebellum architecture and historic buildings. The city is the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America; the Georgia Historical Society, which is the oldest continually operating historical society in the South; the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, (which was one of the South’s first public museums); and the Central of Georgia Railway roundhouse complex, the oldest standing Antebellum rail facility in America.

Savannah’s downtown area, which includes the Savannah Historic District, the Savannah Victorian Historic District and 22 park-like squares, is one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the United States, designated as such by the U.S. government in 1966. Downtown Savannah largely retains the original town plan prescribed by founder James Oglethorpe and visitors along the River Street walk on the same cobblestones and shop and dine in the same buildings Colonial Georgians did.

The NWA birthday festivities open with golf and skeet shooting tournaments at world-class facilities. The Landings Golf Club, located 12 miles from downtown on Skidaway Island, features six championship golf courses designed by the very best — Arnold Palmer, Tom Fazio, Arthur Hills and Willard Byrd.

Nestled quietly between the Wilmington River and Romerly Marsh, The Landings Club is home to the serene natural beauty of majestic oaks and pines, lagoons and salt marshes, all complemented by world class amenities.

Meanwhile, the Forest City Gun Club — founded in 1883, chartered in 1901 as a private club and the nation’s oldest continually operating gun club — will be home to the skeet tournament.

For those not wanting to shoot birdies or clay pigeons, there is a tour of Savannah’s historical sites, beginning with lunch at the world-renowned Mrs. Wilke’s family style old Southern cooking restaurant.

The National Watermelon Queen competition — now in its 50th year — will be central to events, as will the post-keynote luncheon address auction, easily the liveliest bidding event in produce tradeshows. It’s an afternoon-long affair with everything from sports and entertainment memorabilia to future loads of watermelon up for sale (not to mention an open bar).

The A-Town A-List band will anchor an evening of dining and dancing and Morrissey promises the group will deliver something for all ages.

“These guys are dynamite, they can play anything,” he said. “They are guaranteed to have everyone in the room up and dancing, from grandmothers to 3-year-olds.”

While the NWA Centennial  celebration in San Antonio last February raised the bar for convention expectations, Morrissey promises the Savannah birthday party will be equally eventful.

But in true Morrissey tradition, some key elements of the Savannah show remain secret. What else would you expect from a man who fooled 350 people at the 2013 convention in Texas into believing their luncheon speaker was former President George Bush? (It was actually a remarkable impersonator from Orlando, FL.)

Meanwhile, the NWA will make the official announcement of a new promotional partnership with Helena Chemical Co.

The NWA has in recent years sponsored an entry in the NASCAR Truck Racing Series — the increasingly famous “Watermelon Truck” — and that program has yielded significant marketing returns. But running a race team is an expensive proposition.

Enter Helena. Any grower purchasing chemicals, fertilizer or other inputs from Helena will be contributing directly to the bankroll that will keep the Watermelon Truck running through a demanding nine-race season from February-November. And the NWA and its nine chapters will benefit from unique promotional opportunities at each event.

“We have witnessed time and again that the Watermelon Truck is a significant marketing vehicle that attracts media and race fan attention and is a great way to generically promote our crop,” Morrissey said.

“The association and industry will benefit from a year-long promotion that attracts consumer attention and will expand watermelon sales while it supplements the efforts of the National Watermelon Promotion Board,” he added. “Watermelon is a favorite at races amongst fans, television announcers, drivers and their crews. It also helps that our driver is fourth-generation watermelon grower Ross Chastain.”