Tourism: Taking over as the UC’s bread and butter?
Liz Engel Clark
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Deer Creek Golf Club in Crossville is just one of 10 championship golf courses in Cumberland County.
Visitors to the Upper Cumberland region, who number in the millions each year, are more than a temporary fixture – they’re economic drivers, job producers and, maybe, if they stop here enough, potential future neighbors.
And they’re a group that also apparently has strong stomachs. Tourists don’t seem to be as easily scared by higher gas prices – one of the main things holding other industries back. Sure they might not travel as far, or stay as long, but they’ll still travel all the same.
“High gas prices is not a new thing for any of us,” said Ashley Kesterson of the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce. “Usually when gas prices go up, people still travel, they just travel shorter distances. And that still helps our area tourism efforts, most definitely.”
Tourism, no matter how you slice it, is a big piece of the UC’s economy. In 2010, the latest year in which figures are available, the Upper Cumberland racked in nearly $319 million from tourism alone, a 3-percent increase in tourist spending over 2009. Two counties – Cumberland and Putnam – ranked in the top 20 in the state in terms of tourism spending overall.
For Cumberland County, the 2010 numbers represented a 1.1 percent increase. But the bigger picture was more impressive. During a 10-year period, from 2001-2010, tourism generated $857 million. During that same decade, about 9,900 jobs were created as a direct result of sightseers stopping by.
Another strong indicator, to further prove that point, is retail sales per capita. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Crossville was $29,636 in 2006-10. But retail sales per capita exceeded $48,000 in 2007, the most recent figure available.
“Tourism for us is definitely an economic driver,” Kesterson said. “A lot of people think that tourism jobs are low-paying jobs. That’s not the case. They are a big part of the industry as a whole. Tourism brings a high quality of life, it creates entrepreneurs, it even brings in new businesses that are trying to fit the needs of the community.”
Kesterson cited the city’s diversity in golf courses, there are 10 championship courses, part of the reason Crossville designates itself as the “Golf Capital of Tennessee;” natural resources, including Cumberland Mountain State Park, Black Mountain and Catoosa Wildlife Management Area; and cultural attractions, the Cumberland County Playhouse regularly ranks among Tennessee’s top 50, as factors in bringing in visitors.
“Cumberland County has a good mix of everything – you have to have more than just golf, you have to have arts and entertainment. There’s agritourism. And sports is huge; we continue to draw quite a few tournaments into town,” she said.
The shorelines at Center Hill Lake, another popular stop where more than 3 million visitors enjoy water activities annually, helped Smithville and DeKalb County top the $34 million mark in travel-related expenditures in 2010. According to the U.S. Travel Association’s Economic Impact of Travel on Tennessee Counties report, that equals 270 jobs and more than $7 million of payroll. These travelers also created more than $4.5 million in local county tax revenues and nearly $2 million in state tax revenue. If you divide that income by the number of households in DeKalb County, that means each family pays $711 less in local and state taxes as a direct result of their visitors.
And just down the road in Van Buren County, home to Fall Creek Falls, tourists generate enough of a sales tax benefit to reduce each county household annual tax burden by more than $500. Tourist spending generated more than $8 million in direct spending and $1.35 million in combined state and local taxes.
Getting people to visit is one thing. But getting them to stay – as full-time residents – is quite another. But that’s a growing aspect of tourism that’s most definitely on the minds of more Middle Tennessee towns. A handful locally are designated as Retire Tennessee communities, including Cookeville, Monterey, McMinnville and Crossville.
“As a rule, if you come here five times in a row before you retire, chances are you will retire here,” said Ruth Dyal, director of the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association. “Our location (is so ideal). We’re an hour drive from Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, so if you want action, you can get into a car and drive there. But you always come right back here because it’s nice and quiet and doesn’t cost you two arms and four legs to live. A lot of people are interested in that.”
Communities, for the most part, like to attract retirees for several reasons: Their income is more stable, retirees create jobs and don’t strain local resources, and, of course, retirees generate additional tax revenue.
“People are going to visit first, but after they visit, we hope to turn them into residents,” Kesterson said. “We want our area to be catchy enough to where they’ll come back, and when they get ready to maybe relocate or retire, they’ll choose Cumberland County for their home, which again, is a whole other driver for our economy.”
And tourism is one part of the economy expected to grow. The U.S. Commerce Department, in its semi-annual spring forecast, recently announced that tourism nationwide is expected to grow 4-5 percent annually over the next five years. This is despite future projected gas prices, which tourists almost see as old hat.
“I think everybody’s gotten accustomed to holding their breath when it comes to gas prices,” said Will Robbins, director of the Byrdstown-Pickett County Chamber of Commerce. Dale Hollow Lake, arguably Pickett County’s – and the Upper Cumberland’s – top attraction, also brings in three million visitors each year. “Our marinas and campgrounds have reopened and the season’s already gotten off to a good start.”
Perhaps the best way to gauge the gas effect is to actually hit the interstates. And there’s no better place than the Smith County Welcome Center at mile marker 267 on Interstate 40. Around 2.5 million people stop there each year, making it one of the busiest centers in the state, and manager Cynthia Jared said they’re expecting more of the same this travel season.
“Higher gas prices generally do not affect us,” Jared said. “In fact, when gas prices go up, we get more people who live within the state of Tennessee, who are doing things closer to home, and since we’re on a busy interstate, we do see a lot of folks who live in Tennessee.”
For Jared, it’s more of a challenge to reach out and market all the area’s attractions.
“A lot of attractions in the Upper Cumberland don’t realize what we do here,” she said. “Make sure we have your brochures, introduce yourselves, and show us what you have to offer. Because we can help. We get families here everyday that are traveling through, east and west, and want to know what there is to do. And we recommend things. We have the lakes, the Appalachian Center for Craft, Granville. There’s so much to do. And if we’re excited about it, they’re excited about it.”