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Unicoi County strategically planning tourism boost

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Feb 22, 2018 at 10:13 PM

ERWIN — When it comes to adventure tourism, Unicoi County’s natural assets are “epic,” “unmatched,” “untethered” and the stuff that tourism tax revenues are made of.

When it comes to realizing those revenues, what the county lacks is a tourism culture, a brand and an organization to take those assets to a market hot for the great outdoors.

Those were messages were delivered to the county’s economic development leaders and tourism stakeholders in a Thursday night presentation by the ChandlerThinks consulting firm hired to develop a strategic tourism plan to help the county cash in on all it has to offer.

Paid for with grant funding the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Tennessee Departments of Economic and Community Development and state Department of Tourism, the Unicoi County Strategic Action and Asset Plan has been under development since August and will be delivered early next month.

“This is about the economy. Make no mistakes. This is why were are doing this,” Steve Chander, owner and brand strategist for ChandlerThinks, said.

Chandler said the plan’s objectives are to support the county’s entrepreneurial community, identify current and future assets in the county and lay out a strategic course of action.

“I can’t fly in here on a magic carpet and say to you ‘here’s tourism.’ But it is close. You have amazing potential,” Chandler said.

“I’ve looked at your assets. They’re here. You need to take advantage of them. Tourism is big business. Let’s make it real.”

To get the job done, the ChandlerThinks plan recommends beginning with the organization of a local tourism council with interagency cooperation and comprehensive, integrated planning between the the county and the towns of Erwin and Unicoi.

Looking at the numbers, Chander said tourism brought in $1.8 million in direct spending in Unicoi County last year, compared to $2.2 billion in Sevier County, where the Smoky Mountains are a brand that brings to mind “lights in the mountains” as much as as it does outdoor recreation.

Recalling an August town hall meeting in which ChanlderThinks surveyed a group of about 35 Unicoi County leaders and business owners and learned their preference was to avoid developing a tourism culture like that of Sevier County, Chanlder said, “This is the place for the nature lover. This is what we are best at.”

He called the town’s collection of assets “impressive” and listed them as natural beauty, particularly the Nolichucky River and Rocky Fork State Park, a vibrant downtown in Erwin, several interstate exits, cabins, an arts and heritage culture, and a very successful fall Apple Festival.

Weaknesses included a shortage of lodging, shopping and dining opportunities, a lack of wayfinding signs, a very limited online presence, and inadequate cooperation in tourism marketing between three local governments.

Areas of opportunities were listed adventure tourism, tapping into the tourism markets of nearby Johnson City and Asheville, N.C.; playing on the county’s status as one of only eight counties in Tennessee connecting to the Appalachian Trail; and latching on to the success of the young professional group RISE Erwin that Chandler recognized for its motivation and ability to get things done.

From the $1.8 million in direct tourism spending in the county last year, Chander said the approximately $49,000 in hotel/motel occupancy taxes were collected, compared to $144,000 collected in neighboring Johnson City.

For an immediate increase in tourism revenue, he recommended Erwin implement a hotel/motel occupancy tax to supplement those taxes collected by the county.

Additional recommendations included allocating 50 percent of hotel/motel tax collections to tourism marketing and educating the community on the importance of tourism.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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