By Colleen Jenkins
SENOIA, Georgia (Reuters) - Frank Hollberg III, whose family has sold furniture in Senoia, Georgia since 1894, laughed as he recalled the odd sight of watching a man walk through the idyllic downtown holding a head in his hand.
The head was a prop and the man an actor filming "The Walking Dead," the hit zombie-themed television series that has drawn millions of fans worldwide and helped turn the small town 25 miles south of Atlanta into a thriving tourist attraction.
Senoia, pronounced "Seh-noy" by its 3,300 residents, had seen its fortunes fade after the local cotton and agricultural industries died off. But the town now boasts a retail district that grew from six to 49 businesses in half a dozen years.
Country music singer Zac Brown has opened a restaurant and live music venue on Main Street, and two home showcases by Southern Living magazine's popular "Idea House" program brought about 30,000 visitors to Senoia in 2010 and again in 2012, local officials said.
"It's been a hell of a lot of changes in this town," said Hollberg, 77. "It's a different world."
Hollberg and other locals credit most of the newfound popularity to the success of the weekly AMC cable network series. "The Walking Dead" averages 7 million U.S. viewers ages 18 to 49, making it the top-rated drama for that demographic in cable history, according to AMC.
Fans proved eager to get a behind-the-scenes look at filming in and around Senoia, which for the show's third season was transformed into the fictional town of Woodbury. The season finale airs on Sunday.
They found a town that had stopped cutting the grass and weeding the flower beds to foster an authentic post-apocalyptic setting, said Mayor Robert Belisle. Stores displayed zombie-themed T-shirts next to baby clothes and home decor items.
Some natives grumbled about having to jockey for parking spaces, but many business owners said they were happy to accommodate the show and its fans.
"When your sales are up 40 percent over the same month last year, it must be a good thing," said store owner Jim Preece. "Our Christmas was phenomenal."
The guest book by Preece's register logs signatures of visitors who traveled to Senoia from across the United States, as well as Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.
The tourist traffic continued after the cameras stopped rolling, business owners said, aided by fan websites that direct visitors to specific filming spots for each episode.
Brian Holland, a heating and air service technician who lives in Columbus, Georgia, runs the Walking Dead Locations website as a hobby. He said people email him daily asking for help planning their trips.
"It started out as me running around on Saturdays taking pictures of places we'd seen on the show, to talking to people all over the world," said Holland, 40.
One recent weekday, show fans ranging from teenagers to retirees posed for pictures by the fake Woodbury town hall and bank and bought "Zombie Dark" coffee from the cafe that serves as the Woodbury Coffee House on the show.
"My daughter is going to be extremely jealous," said Ted Molnar, 60, who drove two hours from LaFayette, Georgia, with his wife to check out the show's backdrop. A sticker on their van read, "When the zombies come, I'll be ready."
The series has "forever redefined this town," said Scott Tigchelaar, a developer and president of Raleigh Studios - Atlanta, a film company whose 120-acre property in Senoia serves as home base for the show's production.
"'Walking Dead' to Senoia is like 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' to Savannah," he said, referring to the best-selling 1994 novel set in the picturesque Georgia city and made into a movie directed by Clint Eastwood.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Georgia has enticed the film and TV industry to towns across the state with generous tax incentives and dozens of direct flights each day between Atlanta and Los Angeles, he said.
The state hosted 333 films, TV productions and music videos between July 2011 and June 2012, generating nearly $880 million in direct spending by the entertainment industry, according to the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office.
Senoia is not paid for the filming, leaving local leaders to find other ways to capitalize on the spotlight while preserving the town's historic charm.
The downtown development authority installed sidewalk plaques to highlight some of the two dozen movies and TV series that have filmed in Senoia, including "Fried Green Tomatoes", "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Drop Dead Diva".
Tigchelaar, a Canada native whose development company has restored much of the downtown, said he and his brother-in-law bought a trolley to give tours of various film locations starting this spring.
A store with licensed merchandise for "The Walking Dead" is set to open when production resumes in May and, later this year, developers expect to break ground on a boutique hotel.
"Ten years ago to talk about a four-star hotel in Senoia, people probably would have laughed me out of town," Tigchelaar said. "Today, it's feasible."
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins. Editing by David Adams and David Gregorio)