There is a movement afoot to rebrand Johnson City as a “base camp” for those seeking to engage in the many outdoor recreational opportunities available in our region.
The upcoming Meet the Mountains Festival – which will be held on Aug. 24-25 – is the embodiment of this movement. Headquartered in Founders Park, the inaugural festival will give folks a taste of all the outdoor activities available within a short drive of Johnson City.
With outdoor recreation becoming such a high priority for business leaders and government officials alike, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Johnson City with a better perspective on the subject than Dan Mahoney. Not only did Mahoney serve 12 years on the Johnson City Commission, which included a stint as mayor, he has also spent decades overseeing the growth of Mahoney’s Outfitters, an iconic outdoor store on the corner of Sunset Drive and Knob Creek Road.
From Dan Mahoney’s perspective, there will no doubt be plenty of tourists drawn to Johnson City in search of a convenient place to stay while sampling the outdoor destinations in our area, but the true renaissance of outdoor activity in our region started with a paradigm shift among those who already live here.
“Everybody’s talking about getting new people in here, but I think the reopening is the people that have lived in this region all this time,” Mahoney said. “They’re starting to wake up and starting to say, ‘You know, we didn’t know we lived in the best part of the country.’ I’m hearing that a lot more.”
Ski slopes, mountains, rivers, lakes and sprawling forests that may have been taken for granted in the past are now seen as a great asset. That mindset has led to more investment in areas geared toward outdoor enthusiasts. A new mountain biking park is almost complete on Tannery Knob with more trails on the way in and around Johnson City.
So why were so many people in our area unaware of what we had? Mahoney believes it was a case of the grass seeming greener on the other side of the fence. Fishing, he says, is a prime example. Folks who saw “A River Runs Through It” rushed off to Montana, Wyoming and Colorado to go fly fishing only to realize the fishing wasn’t any better there than it is on the world-class tailwaters of the South Holston.
“They love it where they go, but they always want to come home,” Mahoney said. “This is one place they all want to come home to. And why is that? Because we’ve got it just as good.”
As great as our outdoor assets are, a newfound sense of regionalism that is developing among local leaders has also played a large role in the evolution of Johnson City’s branding efforts. In order to market the city as a base camp, Johnson City must also acknowledge and promote white-water rafting in Erwin, fly-fishing destinations in Sullivan and Carter Counties, skiing destinations in North Carolina and the Appalachian Trail, which straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina border.
Mahoney remembers the uphill battle regionalism faced during his time in city government, and he marvels at how far folks in our area have come toward burying old grudges and banding together to achieve common goals. Nowadays Mahoney doesn’t think twice before directing a visitor to a restaurant in Kingsport, Bristol or Carter County.
“Thirty or 40 years ago I wouldn’t have done that, because I still had that old mindset of what is Johnson City is Johnson City,” he said. “Same thing with all the assets of the outdoors around here. I think people are starting to realize it. What’s good for Erwin is extra good for us.”
Mahoney sees a lot of positives in the newfound focus on outdoor activities in our area. Citizens are enjoying the byproduct of better health as they traverse the Tweetie Trail, explore hiking trails, splash around rivers and lakes or hop on a mountain bike and take a ride.
But from his perspective, an influx of outdoor-based tourism brings with it a set of potential challenges that must be addressed in the years to come. When Mahoney’s first opened in 1960, the corner of Knob Creek and Sunset was a sleepy intersection in the midst of sprawling farmland. Now the intersection – and North Johnson City as a whole – is a bustling hub of industry surrounded by retail stores and office space.
If our outdoor splendor is to be our calling card, Mahoney says it will be up to local government, business owners and groups of citizens to balance growth with the preservation of the surrounding wilderness.
“I don’t want to see the outdoor lifestyle change,” Mahoney said. “That’s what I’m worried about 10, 20 years from now. Be careful what you wish for, because you’re liable to get it, and when you get it, it’s liable not to be what you wished for.
“How do you control it? That’s going to be the big question.”
Still, Mahoney says trying to strike a balance between growth and conservation is a good problem to have. Many parts of the country aren’t blessed with the combination of natural beauty and infrastructure that can be found in Johnson City. As Mahoney rattled off all the assets the city has to offer – a quality hospital system, a medical school, a pharmacy school, the VA and ETSU – he came to the same conclusion that so many other folks in our area have come to in recent years – there really is no place like home.
“We’re sitting in the catbird seat here with this hospital system we’ve created, with the VA right next to it,” Mahoney said. “What else could you ask for? You get that infrastructure set up, and you’ll be surprised where you can go with it.”