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Major tourism event under way in Unicoi County

Experts from around the nation are converging on Unicoi County this week as local leaders try to map out a plan for tourism as an economic stimulus for “the Valley Beautiful.”
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch says the event – titled “Balancing Nature and Commerce in Unicoi County – is the culmination of years of work that could help sustain economic prosperity for decades.
He’s not simply playing on words when he says, “It’s only natural that Unicoi County get into this.”
“We are sitting on top of a goldmine of possibilities,” Lynch said, “and we have been for years. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. This has been talked about before. What we’re trying to do is revive it and do it right.”
The event, which will feature nationally known speakers, will ask community leaders and attendees to work together to determine a tourism plan for Unicoi County that will not only bring economic benefit but protect the natural beauty of Unicoi County.
Unicoi County’s government will be joined by the governments of the towns of Unicoi and Erwin, as well as the local Economic Development Board and tourism agencies from the around the region.
“I encourage anybody interested in Unicoi County and tourism to attend and discuss what we have to offer and how we offer it and market it,” Lynch said. “This conference is about how we do it and how we protect our community’s character.”
The conference will be held at the Unicoi United Methodist Church’s New Life Center in the town of Unicoi.
It begins with a kick-off public forum Tuesday, Jan. 12, from 5:30-7 p.m. Ed McMahon, representing the Urban land Institute will speak from 7-9 p.m. on “The Dollars and Sense of Protecting Community Character.”
On Wednesday, Jan. 13, sessions begin at 8:30 a.m. with speakers including Kris Hoellen with The Conservation Fund and Steve Morse with the University of Tennessee.
Action planning will take place from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m., and McMahon will speak again from 1:30-3:15 p.m.
At 3:30 p.m., Rita Hennessy, representing the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, will speak.
On Thursday, Jan. 14, speakers from 8-9:45 a.m. will include Tom Speaks with the Cherokee National Forest, Ed Carter with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Mike Carlton with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and Neil Hanson with the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s Enhancement Programs.
Susan Whitaker, Tennessee’s commissioner for the Department of Tourist Development, will speak from 12:45-2 p.m.
From 3-5 p.m., Rick Larsen, representing The Conservation Fund, will speak.
The conference concludes Friday morning with more action planning from 8-10:15 a.m. with a 10:30 a.m. presentation of action plans.
At 11:30 a.m., a facilitated discussion will be held on the next steps the county should take to implement the plans discussed over the entire conference.
“What we’re going for here is sustainable tourism,” Lynch said, “that doesn’t take away from the character of the community. We need recreational tourism, heritage tourism, cultural tourism, agritourism. Unicoi County has a story to tell – from the south end of Flag Pond to Limestone Cove.
“Our collective stories include artisans and musicians and heritage, and we can present it all within our natural resources – the river, the creeks, the mountains. All this can be a huge draw for Unicoi County through tourism.”
Speakers like McMahon will discuss how a community’s character enhances its economy and its way of life.
A $70,000 “Gems of Appalachia” grant the county earned from the Appalachian Regional Commission is paying for the conference. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and former U.S. Rep. David Davis helped the county acquire the grant.
“This is a really big deal,” Lynch said. “We have some major stakeholders joining us – the Forest Service, the University of Tennessee, the Appalchian Trail Conservancy.”