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Sustainable tourism gives potential for growth

Potential. That’s what Unicoi County has. Potential to do something great and promote sustainable tourism.
A national leader on the subject spoke to county and town officials and citizens last week during a conference on Balancing Nature and Commerce and said Unicoi County and its two towns have a lot of assets that can be promoted and utilized as attractions for tourists.
“You’re pretty lucky,” he said. “You’ve got more natural resources than most places do.”
During his travels and speaking as one of the leading authorities on sustainable development, land conservation, urban design and historic preservation, McMahon has consulted for numerous cities.
One of the complaints he hears from city and county leaders concerns preserving land and the loss of property tax revenue. In recent years, this argument has been hashed between officials in Unicoi County as nearly 6,000 acres of Rocky Fork was sold from private ownership and is in the process of being transferred to federal ownership, thus eliminating the property tax.
“I always here people (complaining) about land that was taken off the tax roles,” he said. “Well it’s not like they were doing anything with the land on the tax roles.”
McMahon suggested turning lemons into lemonade, like Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania. Once considered as a burden by the locals because of the property tax money lost, that idea changed when the area was named as America’s No. 1 Dark Skies Park. At that point, visitors can always be guaranteed to see the nighttime sky and the site welcomes 80,000 visitors on the weekends.
“If you don’t know where you are,” McMahon said, “you don’t know who you are.”
He said Unicoi County needs to develop its sense of place. Decide what is important to the county and towns history and embrace those assets.
“Everyone needs a sense of roots or sense of place,” he said. “It’s what makes your hometown that which makes our physical surroundings worth caring about.”
Trees and landscaping are incredibly valuable to what people think of a place. Both can increase property values by up to 15 percent (landscaping) and 20 percent (trees). Trees also help clean the air, provide a home for wildlife, slow stormwater runoff and reduce the urban heat island effect.
Both affect a community’s image it displays to residents and visitors, McMahon said.
“How people think of a place is less tangible, but more important than just about anything else,” McMahon said.
Whoever did that welcome to the town of Unicoi sign, that’s great,” he said, noting that the sign looks fantastic to a visitor just entering the town.
Following a trip into downtown Erwin on Wednesday morning, McMahon passed out plenty of compliments, especially on the railroad theme used in the renovation of the former Clinchfield Railroad Depot, Col. J.F. Toney Memorial Library, construction of the Erwin Town Hall and post office on North Main Avenue.
“The main reason for this grant was to open up and expand our revenue stream for Unicoi County that would be done in conjunction with industrial and retail development,” County Mayor Greg Lynch said. “If we’re successful with recreational tourism, the industrial and retail businesses will expand as a result of that. It’s a win-win situation.”
As part of the conference, attendees brainstormed to gather the assets of Unicoi County. Lynch said a strategic plan will be produced and the ideas will shared. In the near future, entrepreneurial workshops will be scheduled, as well as community meetings.