Jun 21, 2012

Case Study — Knoxville/River Sports Outfitters

Outdoor recreation a catalyst to transform a Tennessee Valley town into a top outdoor playground

Knoxville, Tenn. – Ed McAlister recalls the “aha” moment when a visitor from Boulder marveled at the 1,000 undeveloped acres across the river from downtown Knoxville and said, “Guys, you have a Central Park in the rough here. Don’t let it get away from you.”  

It confirmed McAlister’s long-held hunch that Knoxville could become one of the nation’s top outdoor recreation destinations, like Boulder, if it preserved and developed its natural assets.

McAlister should know. River Sports Outfitters has been providing outdoor gear to a growing customer base that surprisingly skyrocketed during the economic downturn. “In hard times people tend to slow down and do more things locally. We’re seeing a lot more folks looking in their own back yards for recreational opportunities these days,” he said.

Companies like River Sports bring families, athletes and adventurers into the Knoxville area with weekly events like bike rides, social paddles and races. But perhaps McAlister’s greatest impact on the local economy has been in helping bring together a once-fractious community to reinvent Knoxville as a premier outdoor recreation getaway. In 2005 the Legacy Parks Foundation was formed as a non-profit working to get people outdoors and to preserve Knoxville’s natural beauty and open spaces.

Government agencies, business groups, preservationists and sporting clubs who were once at odds in regards to Knoxville’s development found common cause in the organization. “A few years ago a survey asked ‘Why wasn’t Knoxville a more prominent destination spot given its unique geography and assets?’ The answers revealed that local stakeholders had different agendas and no cooperation between them. Legacy Parks helped them see that making Knoxville a better outdoor playground together benefited them all,” McAlister said.

With the organizations’ help, the Knoxville area now has approximately 5,723 acres of park and recreation space, including 144 playgrounds and parks, and over 60 miles of greenways and walking trails. The 1,000-acre Knoxville Urban Wilderness Corridor along Knoxville’s downtown waterfront contains ten parks, nearly 10 miles of recreational trails, three civil war forts, historic settlement sites, and diverse ecological features and recreational amenities. Knoxvillians and visitors also enjoy outdoor activities that can be found nearby in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With over 9.2 million visitors annually, it is the country’s most visited national park.

The organization raised money and exposed these assets to the community by sponsoring world-class adventure races. The several millions of dollars raised have enabled Legacy Parks to acquire land, build parks and create recreation programs, among other activities. The foundation works in collaboration with the City of Knoxville, Knox County Parks & Recreation and other civic-minded organizations to strike a balance between development and conservation so that everyone benefits economically as well recreationally.

It also partnered with local mountain bike clubs and other groups to establish trail systems. The organization has more than 150 members who volunteer an average of 3,000 hours annually to build trails for all users – bikers, hikers, runners and walkers. The Tennessee River and other waterways are also being cleaned and protected for year-round fishing, boating and swimming. Wildlife sanctuaries and an environmental learning center are being built. The list of projects goes on.

With his phone ringing off the hook with questions about where and what to do in Knoxville, McAlister created a website called OutdoorKnoxville.com which provides the most comprehensive information about parks, trails, greenways, activities and amenities in the Knoxville area. The Legacy Parks Foundation now manages the website, providing continuously updated information so that visitors can easily plan their outings.

“Everyone now recognizes that having a fun place to live and play is going to attract business,” McAlister said. “We have momentum now, thanks to the partnership of what I call the Four Cs – county, city, community and citizens. It’s been an incredibly successful grass roots effort because everyone came together to preserve the beauty of Knoxville for the greatest public benefit.”

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