Making Johnson City the mountain town it should be

Johnson City Press • Aug 29, 2018 at 8:30 AM

After both Blue Plum and Little Chicago were hampered by heavy rains this summer, festival enthusiasts finally got to enjoy perfect weather for a downtown Johnson City festival last weekend.

And what a festival it was.

Right out of the gate, the inaugural Meet the Mountains Festival at Founders Park established itself as just the right mix of recreational activities, entertainment and information to draw healthy crowds. Never have we seen so many families being so active in one setting.

Perhaps that’s because Meet the Mountains tapped into this region’s largely unpromoted strength: the multitude of natural assets and outdoor recreational opportunities that make our way of life special.

As one longtime resident put it this weekend, Johnson City used to seem like the “least mountain town of any mountain town” on the map. We never realized or capitalized on what we had here. But that’s not true anymore, and Meet the Mountains proved it.

Meet the Mountains was powered in part by the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, a coalition of economic development agencies in Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties. Soon after its formation last year, NETREP recognized that the region’s recreational potential was the untapped key to the region’s economic development. NETREP even hired former Johnson City Press staff writer Kayla Carter to be its first outdoor development manager.

As we stated in May, tourism dollars alone are reason enough to market the region as an outdoors mecca, but quality of life is a major criterion for many companies when they scout locations to set up shop. The more we promote our ridges, trails, rivers and lakes, the more interest we will draw on both fronts.

Johnson City, Erwin and Elizabethton already have made great strides in taking advantage of the potential. The Tweetsie Trail between here and Elizabethton, the Linear Trail expansion in Erwin and the soon-to-open Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park are prime examples. Such new businesses as Trek Bicycles, Local Motion and Overmountain Outdoors are here because of that focus, and downtown Johnson City is well on its way to being an outdoor business hub.

Last weekend’s festival was intended to show off all of that, and it succeeded. Visitors not only could climb a wall, play disc golf, paddle in a makeshift lake and ride mountain bikes through an obstacle course at Founders Park, they could also take part in any of 14 off-site events that took them on real adventures. The events included a sunset hike and fly fishing in Unicoi County’s Rocky Fork State Park, races on the Tweetsie Trail, preview rides on Tannery Knobs and a “full moon hike” on Carter County’s Roan Mountain Balds.

Having all of that in the festival’s first year illustrates just how much potential there is for Meet the Mountains, and it only scratched the surface of what is available. White-water rafting and kayaking on the Nolichucky River, fishing tournaments on Watauga Lake, overnight camping trips in the mountains and much more could be added to future festivals.

If Meet the Mountains’ opening success is any indication, the festival could grow into Southern Appalachia’s blue-chip event, garnering national and international attention. Everyone involved is to be congratulated.

Another festival-goer this weekend pondered whether Johnson City (with its neighbors) could be considered “The Capital of Southern Appalachia.” While we might face competition to that claim from such cities as Asheville, N.C., and Roanoke, Va., our central location is prime, and efforts like Meet the Mountains could just make the title true in short order.

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