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Visitor center, downtown vacancies listed as weaknesses in draft Johnson City tourism plan

David Floyd • Mar 22, 2020 at 4:57 PM

Currently housed in the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce building at 603 E. Market St., tourism officials believe it may be time for the visitor center to get a new home.

“We’ve always said that tourism is the front porch of your community,” Brenda Whitson, executive director of the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said. “So if your front porch doesn’t look good, then you set a tone or a precedent either fair or unfair of what somebody is going to think about your community.”

Along with the appearance of the city’s downtown area, the CVB’s organizational structure, and the availability of marketing money compared to other destinations, the visitor center was one of the weaknesses identified in a 2020 draft strategic plan presented to Johnson City commissioners on March 12. The document is still under review and is months away from being finalized.

HospitalityTN, a nonprofit trade association that includes the Johnson City CVB as one of its members, is assembling the plan for free.

Whitson said a visitor center should to be an “experience in itself,” offering an authentic reflection of the region and its brand, messaging and “collateral material.”

John Whisenant, the director of tourism and communications of HospitalityTN, told commissioners last week that the center in Johnson City is currently “pretty weak.”

“It’s not in a good location, it’s dark, it’s not easy to find and it doesn’t give a good reflection, I think, of the destination,” he said.

The Johnson City Chamber of Commerce is in the process of trying to sell its building at 603 E. Market, which also houses the CVB, and recently asked the city if it would be interested in purchasing the property for $500,000. The Chamber is getting ready to move to the Model Mill on West Walnut Street once renovations to the roughly 100-year-old structure are complete.

Currently, the CVB is planning on following the Chamber to the Mill, but Whitson said there has been talk about whether there would be space on the first floor of the building for a visitor center.

“That’s in a discussion stage,” she said.

During the meeting earlier this month, Whisenant also recommended that leaders consider conducting a study of other destination management organizations to determine whether they want to change the CVB’s structure.

“Every organization, I don’t care what it is, needs to revisit its structure now and then and just say, ‘Is what we’re doing the best way, are there ways to tweak it, are there ways to change it entirely,’” Whisenant said.

Whisenant also outlined a lengthy list of the region’s strengths, which in the draft document more than double the enumerated weaknesses.

The plan points to the region’s accessibility to the interstate, its affordability and its historical assets. It also pinpoints the draw of specific destinations and events like the Carnegie Hotel, Gray Fossil Site, Hands On! Museum, Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park and the region’s inclusion in the Southern Dozen, a list of picturesque motorcycle rides.

The draft document also lists a handful of potential threats to the area, which includes increased competition from regional destinations like Asheville, North Carolina, Greenville, South Carolina, and Sevier County and from nearby cities like Kingsport and Bristol.

Johnson City and the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce are also in the process of drafting a memorandum of understanding that would formalize how the CVB, which in Johnson City is part of the Chamber, uses occupancy tax dollars issued by the city. Chamber President and CEO Bob Cantler said the CVB uses that money to promote tourism.

“There’s been no understanding since we’ve been handling the occupancy tax as to what guidelines we need to have to do that,” he said. “What we’re doing is formalizing what we have been doing over the years.”

Facts and figures

According to the draft report:

  • Washington County ranked 10th in 2018 out of the state’s 95 counties by economic impact of tourism. $272.6 million was generated in Washington County in direct tourism expenditures.
  • Taxes generated by tourism activity in the county means each household pays $424.68 less in local and state taxes.
  • On an average day in 2018, tourist spending in Washington County generated $746,714.23 in daily expenditures, $101,472.19 in daily payroll and $17,179 in local tax revenue.
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