Steve Chandler with Chandlerthinks gave a presentation of his findings for a comprehensive tourism plan for Unicoi County to county leaders last Thursday. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On Thursday, Feb. 22, Steve Chandler with Chandlerthinks gave a final presentation on a strategic tourism plan for Unicoi County that was funded through a $20,000 State of Tennessee Tourism Enhancement Grant.

Chandler took a tourism impression tour, interviewed stakeholders in the community, held public input meetings, and conducted a community destination perception survey. as well as an online and marketing audit of Unicoi County to gather information for the plan.

“The Town of Unicoi, Unicoi County, and the City of Erwin, I want all of you to work together,” Chandler said. “The opportunities for Unicoi County require that you work together.”

The fundamental issues that Chandler found to be impacting tourism in the county are the need for a tourism organization and institution, interagency coordination, and comprehensive, integrated and inclusive planning.

“The Chamber of Commerce has been appointed some of those responsibilities in Unicoi County, but there has to be an organization that owns this,” Chandler explained. “One organization does not make great tourism. It takes a tourism ownership organization working with the chamber, local governments, and state governments.”

He compared the direct spending, sales tax generation, and local tax relief of Unicoi County with neighboring areas. Yearly, there is $8.8 million of direct spending in Unicoi County, compared to $245 million in Washington County, $47 million in Cocke County, and $371 million in Sullivan County.

“That’s not that much money really,” Chandler said.

For hotel and motel tax revenues, Johnson City has a 7 percent occupancy tax rate, and generates $144,020. Greene County has a 7 percent occupancy tax, and generates $125,000. Cocke County has a split occupancy tax rate of 3 percent in the county and 2 percent  in the city, and generates $241,708. Comparatively, Unicoi County has an occupancy tax of 5 percent and generates $49,000.

“If you look at a five year distribution of that, it’s pretty steady,” he said. “$49,000 isn’t a lot to share.”

Chandler found that the months of June, July, and October generate the heaviest potential for tourism activity in Unicoi County, mostly due to the allure of outdoor activities during the summer and fall.

“We are great at getting in touch with nature,” said Chandler. “This is a place for the nature lover.”

A large amount of natural assets, locations along I-26, lodging cabins, the culture of tourism beginning in Erwin, the culture of arts beginning in the Town of Unicoi, and the Unicoi County Apple Festival were listed as major strengths for the county.

Some of the natural assets that Chandler highlighted included the Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower Trail, Nolichucky River and their guided or unguided tours, the Cherokee National Forest, and the Appalachian Trail.

A lack of lodging, limited food and beverage options, limited shopping, a lack of a consistent way finding the area, a lack of funding, a lack of presence online, and a lack of a strong tourism structure were found to be weaknesses in Unicoi County in terms of attracting tourism.

“Our lodging is a tough one right now, and that needs to go on our radar,” Chandler said. “Economic development, a priority should be more hotels … that will create direct spending, not just in the community but it will provide sustained marketing funding for us.”

The proximity to Asheville and Johnson City positions Unicoi County to benefit from their tourism growth, and the fact that Unicoi County is included in the eight out of 95 Tennessee counties to have an Appalachian Trail connection provides additional opportunities for tourism in the future. 

“The future of tourism, a lot of it is what we gave,” Chandler said. “We are in the right place at the right time. RISE Erwin (community organization), I think is another good opportunity. They have a reputation of action … the community needs a dose of that.”

Chandler presented five main recommendations to increase tourism in Unicoi County. The first two recommendations included making tourism in the county real in terms of operations, presentation and accountability, and committing resources to sustain and fund tourism.

He also recommended leveraging assets that can create immediate revenue, developing assets for the future, and positioning Unicoi County as “The Great Natural Outdoor Wilderness.”

The first strategy he suggested to achieve those recommendations included creating a high-strategic tourism council for all three municipalities.

“We could start a 501(c) 3 … or the county can appoint a tourism council,” he said.

Aside from representatives from each government, Chandler recommended that representatives from USA Raft, Mountain Inn Suites, and downtown Erwin shop owners serve on the council.

“People that deliver tourism should be on the council,” he said. “Let them be a part of the solution.”

Chandler also stressed the importance of hiring a director to own, lead, manage and grow tourism efforts.

“If we’re serious about tourism maybe we need to have someone whose job is tourism,” he said

Next, Chandler said that although the Chamber of Commerce has a well designed website, there needs to be a website specifically dedicated to tourism activities.

“Seventy five percent of all tourism research is done online,” he added.

Due to the retail activities, amenities, and interstate exit, it was recommended to make the Town of Erwin the central base for tourism activity in order to maximize the amount of tax dollars collected.

“I’m not saying the Town of Unicoi isn’t important, it absolutely has a role, all three of our local governments have a role, but the City of Erwin has a place where we can all create revenues,” explained Chandler.

Educating the community on the value of tourism was another tactic Chandler said could expedite tourism efforts. Through annual meetings and working to create a strong tourism culture, this could be accomplished.

The next strategy Chandler suggested was to identify sources for funding and sustaining tourism, and the first recommendation was to allocate a percentage of occupancy tax collections. He suggested allocating 50 percent of those taxes, creating a marketing budget of $25,000. He also encouraged the Town of Erwin to create a 3 percent occupancy tax to create additional revenues.

“Our hotel is in the city limits, essentially we can double the marketing budget by doing this,” he said. “The beauty is that none of the residents are paying this tax; it’s the guests.”

With only 20 percent of area visitors staying overnight, Chandler said marketing efforts should focus on overnight stays due to the fact that overnight guests can generate three to five times more spending.

“We can’t afford to spend our dollars on people just coming here for the day and hanging out,” he said.

As a strategy to develop assets for future development, he recommended to focus on one development project per year. One project that was mentioned was to designate the Town of Unicoi as the premier destination to experience Tennessee’s Appalachian heritage and arts. Chandler said that Appalachian heritage is rich in Tennessee, and can include visual art, music, and food.

“It can be what an Appalachian town should be about,” Chandler said. “You can go over to a cabin and see reenactments, and you can hear some bluegrass and see some art, and get a glimpse into our Appalachian history. We have that opportunity.”

Along with that, he said that the Town of Unicoi should aggressively seek funding to complete the Tanasi Arts Center.

Another high priority project with a strong potential to generate tourism is the development of Rocky Fork State Park. Chandler suggested a partnership with the State of Tennessee to turn the Flag Pond Elementary School into Rocky Fork State Park Visitor’s Center.

The last strategy presented was to label Unicoi County as “The Great Natural Outdoor Wilderness.”

“Your assets are epic, they are very natural, and you have a big opportunity,” he said. “People don’t want to visit Unicoi County, that is not going to be it. What you have is bigger than the name Unicoi County.”

By creating that brand it would increase the marketability of the entire area, creating more appeal for trip packages that would encourage longer stays from tourists.

“Tourism is big business, and you have to work your butt off at it,” Chandler concluded. “But I do believe there is a fantastic opportunity for Unicoi County. People would be chomping at the bit to have what Unicoi County has.”