By Scott Robertson
Part One of a two-part series
With Johnson City’s Tannery Knobs Mountain Biking Park about to open and other mountain bike trails being considered on Buffalo Mountain, as well as in Carter and Unicoi counties, a local delegation attended the International Mountain Bicycling Association Trail Labs in Bentonville, Ark., last week.
Johnson City Vice Mayor Jenny Brock, Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership Outdoor Development Manager Kayla Carter and local mountain bikers Marc Upton and Nathan Cole were joined by representatives of around two dozen communities from Ocala, Fla., to Omaha, Neb. Attendees learned strategies and best practices for planning, designing, and building trail networks, as well as ensuring the sustainable success of mountain biking as an economic driver in their communities.
“As I look at our infrastructure investments today, I am keenly aware that my generation will enjoy them for a while, but the real benefactors are future generations. I ask this question, ‘what will it take to get young people to make Johnson City and the region their home to live, work and play,’” Brock said. “The demographic mix of our area is showing many of these young people are going elsewhere, mainly the large urban centers. I believe easy access to outdoor recreation can be a feature of our community that may attract them to stay or to come.”
Bentonville served as host city for the meeting in large part because of its meteoric rise as a mountain biking community, and the resulting economic impact. Boosted by funding from the Walton Family Foundation, Northwest Arkansas has developed more than 150 miles of various types of bicycle trails. Bentonville has hosted 23 cycling events this year already.
“It’s an economic driver,” said Bentonville Parks & Recreation Director David Wright. “It benefits people who own businesses, and not just businesses directly related to this. The development community now wants to build along the trail system.”
In a city of roughly 50,000 people, Wright said, “We spent $8 million on mountain biking. In 2017, we had $27 million in tourism spending with roughly $51 million in business benefits.” Bike-based activities make up the lion’s share of that tourism spending.
The fact that the business benefits outweigh the tourism dollars was not lost on Brock. “Our major businesses are appealing to us to help with maintaining a strong workforce. For our region to remain economically robust, we must grow. To grow, we need to attract younger people to move here. They want certain things. I think we have all those things right here. A well thought out trail system for both traditional biking and mountain biking is a feature a city/region can provide that can be one of the factors in workforce recruitment and retention. Tourists adding to our tax base is icing on the cake.”
The impact of an increase in demand for outdoor recreation opportunities in the region is already being felt, Carter said, especially among young professionals. “They want to be able to quickly access the trails or rivers after work and on the weekends. Mountain biking in Northeast Tennessee serves as a great example of how to engage with young talent as well as families. It’s also boosting our economy through bike sales, maintenance and event curation. Mountain biking is on the rise in our region. It’s already contributing to an increase in the quality of life here.”