McMinnville, Warren County and others make applications for adventure tourism designations

New state program provides tax credits for rock climbing, rafting, equine businesses and more

MCMINNVILLE – McMinnville Mayor Jimmy Haley sees a lot of opportunities for his city under a new program that would designate certain Tennessee communities as adventure tourism districts. Opportunities to boost kayaking, hiking, backpacking businesses and more.

The city, in recent months, passed a resolution declaring its intent to participate in the state’s newest program, which aims to give incentives to businesses operating in growing recreational fields. McMinnville – along with several other Upper Cumberland communities – promises to be among the first applicants when it turns in its paperwork in April – and is certainly taking a different approach to the effort than most.

The Tennessee Adventure Tourism and Rural Development Act of 2011, a bill sponsored by Sen. Ken Yager (R-Harriman), allows certain tourism- related businesses within adventure tourism districts to apply for and qualify for a jobs tax credit. Adventure tourism is defined as equine and motorized trail riding, white water rafting and kayaking, rappelling, road biking, rock climbing, hang-gliding, spelunking, shooting sports, mountain biking, canoeing, paragliding, zip lining and other such tourist and recreational activities.

McMinnville’s effort, however, is unique because their application will include the city as a whole. Warren County is applying for an adventure tourism district, too, but that boundary will include Cumberland Caverns, one of most extensive known caves in Tennessee.

“We’ve got these great natural resources in McMinnville – mountains, caves, a river running right through the center of town…When the program was brought to our attention, the city decided to take the initiative,” Haley said.

“I’m not sure if we’ll be approved or not but I think it’s going to be good for us; it will help us to recruit new businesses,” he added. “We’re trying to diversify McMinnville a little bit, and this might be the right opportunity to get some outside investment, maybe some investors.”

That’s the same thought at least in several other Upper Cumberland areas where adventure tourism aspirations are too growing. White and Putnam passed resolutions in late March to participate in the program; Jackson and Overton were expected to follow. It’s no coincidence that those are the four counties that make up the Highlands Initiative, an economic development program. Approaching the adventure tourism idea as a group effort, while maybe not the original intent of the legislation when drafted three years ago, only makes sense for rural communities, Jodi Sliger, interim director of the Sparta–White County Chamber of Commerce, said.

White County approved five potential adventure tourism districts, which include Lost Creek, Burgess Falls, Rock Island and more. There’s already kayaking, rappelling, caving and more happening in these areas, she said, but the program is the “perfect avenue to broaden those businesses.”

“Basically when we were talking about this a couple years ago, they (the state) wanted (adventure tourism districts) to be much more targeted, individual sections, but now they’re opening that up, and I think they’re doing that because of these rural communities,” Sliger said. “We don’t know whether as a region it will be approved, but we are going to move forward with those thoughts in mind. If all four individual counties are able to go through the process and be approved as adventure tourism districts, there’s really nothing keeping the Highlands from taking that and moving forward with it. That will improve marketability, and of course, recruit some of those all important tourism businesses here.”

Completed applications are due to the Tennessee Department of Economic Development by Tuesday, April 15 – a quick turnaround from when the forms were first made available in February. Once submitted, Haley says they’ll play a game of wait and see. He said he would like to see more multi-county efforts in the future to better highlight the unique features of several Upper Cumberland communities.

“This region is beautiful – we’ve got it all,” Haley said. “Van Buren, White and Warren could easily work together…if we can just hone in on what we’ve got, our assets, this (program) could work well to our advantage.”