City leaders look to leverage natural resources, generate revenue

A pair of hikers enjoy the view from the overlook atop Buffalo Mountain. Johnson City’s leadership is in the process of finding ways to leverage the natural beauty of our region in order to rebrand the city as a tourist destination and a scenic place young professionals will want to call home.

By Gary Gray

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a three-part series of stories focused on the direction of Johnson City’s Board of Commissioners. This story deals with the city’s branding efforts as well as the development of a long-term strategy to leverage our region’s outdoor assets in order to attract tourists and young professionals to Johnson City.

The word “leverage” has become a key descriptor of how Johnson City leaders plan to use its wealth of natural resources and increasing outdoor offerings to entice people and businesses to relocate, attract tourism and destination dollars and improve the overall quality of life.

“It begins by creating your reputation,” Mayor Jenny Brock said about the city’s fresh branding and strategic marketing approach and its long-term goal. “What we’re doing is building a quality of ‘place.’ We’re trying to encourage businesses to come. We’re putting a stake in the ground and saying, ‘You can have a great quality of life here.’

“It became apparent that new factories were hard to come by. So we started looking at our natural resources — something that’s sitting right here in our lap. The initiative is to make it known to more people that we have these resources. The business community has started to see this, and we want to make it an economic generator.”

The strategy was formed following thorough market research by an independent company, as well as community meetings, workshops and one-on-ones with local employers and businesses. Brock said the result was a realization the area’s mountains, lakes, streams, rivers, existing and future hiking and biking trails and natural beauty should be employed as its major recruiting tool.

“I was sitting with a group from the Veterans Administration, and they told me they were bringing new people on who said the positive things to them was what we have to offer is sometimes only blocks away,” she said. “ETSU and Ballad Health officials are saying the same thing. The resources are attracting people.”

“Many of our young people are going to bigger communities, but we want to entice them to stay here. You can be stuck in traffic in Nashville for an hour with a kayak strapped to your car. Ours is a more holistic approach. When I’m thinking about a professional family, they will be looking at our schools, but they also will be looking at what there is for their children to do.”

The city will be doing a feasibility study regarding the expansion of biking trails on Buffalo Mountain, and an overall extension of its growing trail system stemming from the new Tannery Knobs Bike Park to the Tweetsie Trail to both downtown and into Carter and Unicoi counties.

Buffalo Mountain Park is a 725-acre natural resource area obtained by the city in 1994 through a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service. The park is located on the north slope of Buffalo Mountain and consists of steep topography and densely forested land, functioning mainly as a nature preserve for hiking, picnicking and nature programs.

Tannery Knobs Bike Park is located on a heavily wooded, 40-acre mountain which is positioned near the Tweetsie Trail trailhead and the heart of downtown Johnson City. The mountain bike park is designed for riders of all ages and skill levels and includes a “pump track,” as well as four miles of hiking and biking trails.

Brock visited Bentonville, Arkansas, when Tannery Knobs was still a concept. She said city leaders there told here they were having a hard time recruiting people to live there before they installed a trail system.

In 2010, Bentonville’s population was 35,000. A bike park with pre-engineered ramps for kids was constructed, as were trails with mountain bike loops leading to biking “playgrounds,” of which a few were connected to dog parks. Today, Bentonville’s population is more than 50,000.

“Now, builders are going at it,” she said. “They’re wanting more bike trails so they can develop at the places they lead to — where the community is growing. There have been many examples similar to this that also show why an active lifestyle improves health and wellness.

“Now, can we do that? Well, unlike Bentonville, we have mountains. I personally think when the branding is done and the trails are connected, we can truly be a mountain biking mecca and Tannery Knobs will be a catalyst. Take the improved Pinnacle trailhead (Unicoi County), for example. Those relatively modest improvements alone increased the number of hikers. That’s an example of success.”

Those who know Brock are familiar with her passion for the outdoors, nature programs, increased recreation opportunities and enhanced health and wellness. She also is not afraid to think big.

“I would love to see a suspension bridge across the Nolichucky River that connects to the trail system,” she said. “We’re also connecting our trails and transportation system, as with the Tweetsie Trail, which I see as the backbone of our trail system. I see people going to work on their bikes.”

It’s clear the outdoor industry is gaining speed. States are creating offices of outdoor recreation that blur the lines between tourism and economic development through the outdoor industry. There are also a growing number of state programs, such as adventure tourism designations that garner more investment in this type of industry.

Last year’s Meet the Mountains festival helped draw young families into several outdoor activities.

“We, as a region, would be remiss if we did not team up to make this a central focus of our overall economic strategy,” said Kayla Carter, Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership outdoor development manager. “Johnson City has a voice in our coalition through the Washington County team, and conversations among that group have been focused on Buffalo Mountain, which has a lot of potential considering there is a city park adjacent to National Forest.

“Johnson City already has many green spaces like Winged Deer Park and assets like the Tweetsie Trail for people to utilize for outdoor activity. The city is poised to be a launch pad for adventure with the city’s proximity to other mountain towns like Elizabethton, Roan Mountain and Erwin. When we work together as a region to package everything together, we get longer stays as well as an increase and even distribution of economic gains.”

NeTREP’S Outdoor Development Program currently is building a coalition of like-minded individuals who believe in the power of the outdoor economy. Johnson City certainly plays a key role, and time will tell whether the economic payoff matches and surpasses the effort.

“There’s a balance that has to be achieved when focusing on adventure and outdoor tourism,” Carter said. “It’s one thing to promote our natural capital to encourage economic growth, but that comes with the responsibility to also support and promote stewardship.”


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