The Heart of Tennessee’s Outdoor Recreation Economy Is Beating Strong

If you want to know how investing in recreation infrastructure can pump new life into a city, and by extension, an entire state, look no further than Chattanooga.

By Lindsay Warner July 19, 2017

Chattanooga native Anne Singer remembers a time in the not-so-distant past when you didn’t go to downtown Chattanooga unless you worked there. When civil unrest and gang violence rocked the city, and nightly curfews sent residents scurrying for home when night fell. When there were no restaurants or cafes open along the waterfront. When Chattanooga was ranked worst in the nation for air pollution in 1969.

Later this week at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Outdoor Industry Association will release its 50 2017 State Outdoor Recreation Economy reports. Come to the OIA Industry Lunch: Thrive Outside, where we’ll release the new consumer spending and jobs data for each state’s outdoor recreation economy, and learn how outdoor recreation promotes healthy communities and healthy economies across the nation. Can’t make it to the lunch?

Watch Live or On-Demand

Her 24-year-old daughter, Crissy Singer, is old enough to remember the smell of the dead fish, floating belly-up in the Tennessee River, which meanders down from Chickamauga Lake, swoops through downtown, then heads west toward Prentice Cooper State Forest.

“The river used to be so polluted that the fish were dying; as a sprinter on the swim team (and a germaphobe), I only used pools,” Crissy says, speaking of the city she knew before leaving for college in 2008.

Investing in Chattanooga’s Downtown

Located in the southern end of the Tennessee Valley, Chattanooga was once a booming railroad town that hit its peak in the mid-20th century. Once known as the “Dynamo of Dixie,” Chattanooga’s manufacturing jobs began disappearing in the 1960s, leaving behind a city in decline. People started moving to the suburbs, or out of the state entirely.

That started to change in the late 1980s, when, desperate to bolster a faltering downtown, city planners and residents began implementing a bold series of strategic public-private investment plans. Jack Lupton, a local philanthropist and heir to one the Coca-Cola bottling franchise-holders, invested millions to help open the Tennessee Aquarium, a world-class facility located downtown on the banks of the Tennessee River. The Walnut Street Bridge was renovated to connect downtown with North Chattanooga in 1993. New apartments sprang up, along with a movie theater and children’s museum. Coolidge Park, with its water fountains, rock climbing, and green space, opened in 1999.

“You have to build for your local residents, too, by creating awareness that you live in a community with hundreds of trails literally 10 minutes from downtown. We want to make it easy to get out and enjoy nature, and to build entryways to the outdoors in multiple ways.” — Tim Morgan, president of the Chattanooga Sports Committee

http://www.rivercitycompany.com/new/projects

http://www.rivercitycompany.com/new/projects

And by 2005, the city had completed construction on the Tennessee Riverwalk, a 13-mile riverside path paralleling the Tennessee River that was part of the $120 million 21st Century Waterfront Plan to incorporate more pedestrian areas, green spaces, and public art into the city’s downtown area. The arts scene thrived, anchored by the Hunter Museum of American Art, perched on a bluff above the Tennessee River, which completed a $22 million expansion and renovation in 2005.

Bolstered by the new infrastructure, some longstanding events, such as the Riverbend Music Festival, could expand in scope to take advantage of increased foot traffic. The Head of the Hooch, a rowing regatta dating back to 1982, moved its race from Gainsville, Georgia, to Chattanooga’s Ross’s Landing in 2005, happy to take advantage of the new waterfront area. As a result of the investments, a formerly overlooked, underdeveloped area morphed into what Anne Singer calls “a downtown for the jet-setting young people,” filled with craft breweries, restaurants, tourist boats and pedestrian areas. But in order to keep the forward momentum going, the city had to look beyond new buildings and restaurants to the natural resources surrounding it: The nearby sandstone rocks for climbing, the rolling hills for hiking, and the river winding its way through its newly revitalized downtown.

Headofthehooch.org

Headofthehooch.org

Capitalizing on Natural Resources

Tim Morgan, president of the Chattanooga Sports Committee, sums it up best: “In order to fully realize Chattanooga’s potential, we have to look at all the venues available to us — both God-given and brick-and-mortar.”

When Morgan talks about Chattanooga’s God-given assets, he’s lumping in all of the outdoor pursuits that boosted Chattanooga to the top of Outside magazine’s annual “Best Towns” list — twice — but rock climbing is probably Chattanooga’s most-lauded natural resource. Climbing magazine calls Chattanooga “the best spot to spend autumn as a climber,” as the sandstone cliffs around the city host every kind of climbing you can think of (with the exception of ice climbing). When High Point climbing gym opened in early 2014, offering a super-cool climbing experience indoors — plus a backlit climbing wall on the outside of the building — climbers rejoiced. But in a city doing its best to capitalize on natural resources, was climbing actually contributing to the city’s bottom line?

Related: The Sport the Will Dethrone CrossFit: Less competitive and more social than CrossFit, indoor climbing is everything urban millennials want in a workout. How will your brand respond? 

“Absolutely,” says Andrew Bailey, assistant professor, sport and leisure service administration at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. As part of several reports focusing on the economic impact of outdoor activities, Bailey spent nine months camped out in the parking lot at Lookout Mountain, surveying the climbers who arrived each weekend.

“We found a $7 million economic impact from the climbers alone,” Bailey says. “Climbers can be hard to track; they don’t register anywhere, they don’t sign up anywhere. No roads shut down for them to climb; no one even notices they’re there. But climbers eat in restaurants and stay in hostels and hotels. They have a substantial impact on our economy. And that changes the perception; climbers aren’t just dirt baggers sleeping in their cars; they impact our economy too.”

So if those so-called “dirt-bag” climbers boost Chattanooga’s bottom line, what about all of the people paddleboarding, mountain biking, road biking, hiking, trail running, bouldering, top-roping, horseback riding, hang-gliding, white-water rafting or kayaking?

Later this week at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Outdoor Industry Association will release its 50 2017 State Outdoor Recreation Economy reports. Come to the OIA Industry Lunch: Thrive Outside, where we’ll release the new consumer spending and jobs data for each state’s outdoor recreation economy, and learn how outdoor recreation promotes healthy communities and healthy economies across the nation. Can’t make it to the lunch?

Watch Live or On-Demand

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Outdoor Chattanooga and Activities for Locals and Tourists

According to the University of Tennesee’s report on climbing, 70 percent of the climbers surveyed were out-of-towners, and 30 percent were local. While that percentage doesn’t account for the number of local climbers who likely climb at locals-only/off-the-beaten-path destinations, it does underscore the need to support locals in outdoor recreation, as well as tourists.

That’s where Outdoor Chattanooga comes in. At face value, Outdoor Chattanooga functions as a travel agent for adventure around the city. And while some activities—sky-diving or horseback riding, for example—might tend to attract the out-of-towners, Outdoor Chattanooga also offers plenty of opportunities for locals, via programs like Bike Commuting 101, water safety courses, an interscholastic climbing league, or help getting connected with programs like the Chattanooga Dragon Boat Club. And, notes Outdoor Chattanooga Executive Director Philip Grymes, their position as a county-wide outdoor programmer helps them advise locals interested in starting their own recreation-focused businesses around Chattanooga, too. Plus, the outreach and programming put in motion by Outdoor Chattanooga helps make local residents even more aware of the treasures in their backyards.

“You have to build for your local residents, too, by creating awareness that you live in a community with hundreds of trails literally 10 minutes from downtown,” Morgan says. “We want to make it easy to get out and enjoy nature, and to build entryways to the outdoors in multiple ways.” 

Playing Host City to IRONMAN and Head of the Hooch

Still, there’s no denying that the bulk of the city’s revenue stems from its largest tourism-focused events, such as Riverbend ($25 million), Head of the Hooch regatta, and the IRONMAN triathlon.

“When we caught a hint that IRONMAN was looking for a Southeastern destination, we aggressively campaigned to host it here, citing our beautiful waterway, which meanders through a compact metro downtown area filled with hotels, restaurants and other attractions,” Morgan says. “We’d hosted events in the past that showcased Chattanooga’s outdoor assets, but had never done business with an international brand like IRONMAN.”

This year, Chattanooga will host the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship. It’s the only city in the world to host an IRONMAN, an IRONMAN 70.3, and two days of IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship racing. Morgan estimates IRONMAN has had a $100 million impact on the economy over the past five years.

And representatives from Head of the Hooch, which started with just 4,566 seats rowed in 2006, estimate that more than 10,000 seats will be rowed in 2017. The annual regatta has an economic impact of more than $5.5 million for the city of Chattanooga.

“Access to the water has dramatically increased business opportunities here. Now we’re seeing entrepreneurs and corporate businesses relocating for the quality of life. We can’t contribute everything to that $120 million investment in the waterfront area, but it’s definitely positioned the community for positive growth.” —Tim Morgan

Gauging the Everyday Impact of Outdoor Recreation on Chattanooga’s Economy

According to the U.S. Travel Association, Chattanooga has 3.5 million annual visitors who spend $1 billion dollars in the city each year. That’s a lot of revenue coming in from tourism, keeping an estimated 7,454 individuals employed each year, and boosting sales at businesses across the city.

“Access to the water has dramatically increased business opportunities here,” Morgan says. “Now we’re seeing entrepreneurs and corporate businesses relocating for the quality of life. We can’t [attribute] everything to that $120 million investment in the waterfront area, but it’s definitely positioned the community for positive growth.”

Among the businesses that have sprung up are RootsRated.com, a media platform co-founded by Chattanoogans Mark McKnight and Fynn Glover, plus a large fulfillment center for Amazon and Fed-Ex, and a huge Volkswagen plant that’s surrounded by 2,800 acres used for mountain biking, hiking and trail running. Design firms and ad agencies started relocating from the concrete jungle of Atlanta to downtown Chattanooga (as a result, the city even has its own typeface now). A huge investment in internet speed gave Chattanooga the nickname “Gig City” and supports the businesses moving in; the outdoor industry keeps them happy.

“The natural features here haven’t changed,” Gymes notes. “What’s changed is the improved access to outdoor activities, and the information that’s available about what to do and where to go.”

It doesn’t hurt that the city’s move away from industry and toward cleaner, more outdoor-focused businesses has vastly improved its air and water quality.

“There are so many trails along greenways and waterways, and such a huge culture of water sports here that everyone is keeping an eye on things,” Grymes says.

The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have also helped. So, too, has the city’s reliance on water quality to host scores of open-water swimmers for IRONMAN and other events. You won’t find scores of dead fish belly-up in the Tennessee River these days. But you will find thousands of swimmers, stand-up paddleboarders, kayakers and fishermen, all doing their part to contribute to a vibrant, outdoors-oriented city that thrives on the revenue of its assets — both natural and developed.

Learn more about water policy and how to advocate for it during Outdoor Retailer Summer Market at the Public Lands Action Center