FRANKFORT — Kentucky is no longer top dog when it comes to coonhounds.
Illinois has landed the Professional Kennel Club's annual competition to determine the world's best coonhound, a 10-day event that had been held in Kentucky for nearly two decades.
While residents of Salem, Ill., prepare for the arrival of nearly 2,000 of the nation's top canine athletes later this month, business owners in Kentucky still are chafing that they lost an event with an economic impact of up to $3.5 million.
"It's going to be a terrible blow to this area," said Randy Mabry, owner of Willow Pond Southern Catfish Restaurant in the Western Kentucky community of Hardin near the Kenlake State Resort Park that had hosted the event. "When those guys are here, they spend a lot of money."
Kentucky officials were caught off guard by Evansville, Ind.-based Professional Kennel Club's decision to move the event to Illinois, said Gil Lawson, spokesman for the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.
"We did not know about this until after the decision had been made," Lawson said.
Though the organization — devoted solely to scent hound competitions — had been considering a move, President Roger Carnegie said a devastating ice storm that hit Kentucky last winter cemented the decision. That storm downed trees across the state, making it difficult for hunters to walk through some forested areas.
"I spent a lot of sleepless nights making the decision," Carnegie said. "It was the hardest decision I've made."
Nearly $200,000 in cash prizes are awarded to dog owners during the world championship competition, but the big winners have always been the local businesses, said Dave Tarnowski, owner of Ken Oak Resort Early American Motel in Aurora, a tiny tourist community on the banks of Kentucky Lake.
Illinois officials, aware of the economic benefits, went courting when they learned that the Professional Kennel Club was looking for a new host site, said Tracey McDaneld, director of economic development in Salem. McDaneld expects the event to draw about 7,000 visitors to Salem, population 8,000, beginning Oct. 22.
Those visitors, she said, will be greeted by huge welcome banners, the first one beside the exit ramp off Interstate 57. Others will be strung from light poles high above the main thoroughfare. Welcome posters have been distributed to every store in town.
"We're trying to roll out the prettiest red carpet we can for them," McDaneld said. "The chance to host a world hunt like this is the chance of a lifetime."
The nighttime sport of hunting raccoons with hounds has survived through the generations across rural America and has come under fire in some states by animal rights groups in recent years. But in the Professional Kennel Club events, raccoons aren't shot. Firearms aren't even allowed. The winner is the dog that can find and chase wily little raccoons up trees the fastest.
Several hound breeds will compete, though the most common are the treeing walker, bluetick, American black and tan, and English coonhounds. All are long-eared dogs with a strong instinct to stay at the base of a tree and bark up at the raccoons until their handlers arrive.
Jo Kathmann, president of The Tourism Bureau of Southwestern Illinois, said her organization estimated the economic impact of hosting the world championship and related events at between $3 million and $3.5 million.
"This is a big deal for the little town of Salem," Kathmann said.
Salem City Manager Thomas Christie said the community has focused on expanding its tourism industry and hosting the event complements that. Already, he said, every hotel room in town is booked.
"Any time a city, particularity a city the size of Salem, has the fortune to host a world event, it cannot be anything but positive," Christie said. "It's going to help the economy."