Sep. 26—Southeast Tennessee's Bledsoe and Grundy counties are among nine in the state to be targeted by an economic initiative to grow tourism using state-owned lands.
Distressed counties are those that rank among the 10% most economically challenged counties in the nation, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Besides Bledsoe and Grundy, Tennessee has seven other distressed counties: Lake, Lauderdale, Perry, Clay, Scott, Hancock and Cocke counties.
State lands exist in all of them.
The program will capitalize on the attraction of state parks, state natural areas, state forests and state wildlife management areas, which are rich in natural resources and can draw visitors to local communities, according to TDEC spokesperson Kim Schofinski. Outdoor recreation comprises almost $9 billion of the state's gross domestic product and accounts for more than 100,000 jobs, she said.
County mayors in the two counties — members of the task force made up of top officials and stakeholders who will help direct the project by providing information on key areas — hope the initiative helps draw more out-of-town visitors and their money.
"The goal is to use that information to develop strategic plans tailored to each county with an anticipated completion date of next summer," Schofinski said.
A generous portion of Fall Creek Falls State Park— one of the state's most-visited parks with a new $40.4 million 85-room lodge in the final stages of construction — lies in Bledsoe County, where County Mayor Gregg Ridley is happy to see some state attention.
"We are always excited to see the state invest in our community," Ridley said.
"This will bring more people through Bledsoe County who could possibly drop a dollar at a local business on their way to Fall Creek Falls," he said. A $2.7 million visitors center was opened there in 2020.
The county is also home to Bledsoe State Forest, an 8,365-acre collection of land originally purchased by the state in 1907. The state forest is divided into two similarly sized parts and is just three miles from Fall Creek Falls, so a visitor could easily take in both.
"Bledsoe State Forest is open for hunting, horseback riding and four-wheelers," Ridley said.
While Bledsoe County is home, along with neighboring Van Buren County, to flagship state park Fall Creek Falls, Grundy is home to thousands of acres of state park and natural areas spread across the Cumberland Plateau.
Grundy County Mayor Michael Brady said the county's plentiful state lands need some commercial and infrastructure improvements to become a viable tourism destination that generates local money.
Brady points to the Stone Door Addition to South Cumberland State Park as an example of the growth of Grundy's new natural attractions.
South Cumberland State Park comprises about 31,000 acres divvied up across nine areas in Grundy, Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie counties. The primary property with the park office is located near Monteagle, Tennessee, in Grundy.
Grundy's state-owned lands — mostly part of the sprawling South Cumberland — include Greeter Falls, Collins Gulf, Grundy Lakes, Savage Gulf State Natural Area and Grundy Forest State Natural Area and its Fiery Gizzard Trail.
Grundy has plenty of natural beauty to draw visitors, but once they get there, shortcomings become clearer.
"One thing we lack as far as tourism is some of the services," Brady said, noting needs include retailers, lodging and health care.
"We have some infrastructure needs and also there's some development of some tourism assets such as the Mountain Goat Trail," Brady said. He hopes the Mountain Goat Trail — not a state property and a work in progress aiming to complete an almost 40-mile public path through seven Cumberland Plateau towns on the Mountain Goat Railroad rail bed — benefits from ideas for state lands.
"The Fiery Gizzard out in Tracy City is one of the nation's top five hiking trails; any development on that would be a welcome site for visitors and Grundy County," Brady said.
State officials say the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted people's need to get outdoors. Visitation in 2020 soared as people "stayed home" outdoors.
"The abundant natural resources in our state include vast areas that are in state hands, and we believe they have greater economic potential," TDEC Commissioner David Salyers said. "This task force will look for ways to maximize these areas for the greatest economic effect."
"In Grundy County, we plan to work with local leaders to help the county leverage South Cumberland State Park, particularly looking at the Stone Door Annex expansion," Schofinski said.
"For Bledsoe County, we plan to work with local leaders to leverage Fall Creek Falls State Park and Bledsoe Forest," she said.
"We will also be looking to explore new opportunities with all counties involved. Potential project examples could include building new trails for hiking, mountain biking or horseback riding; increasing access to rivers and lakes for fishing and paddling; and creating or revitalizing campgrounds to encourage overnight visitation," Schofinski said.
"Building new amenities isn't the sole project focus — plans may also include the promotion and marketing of already existing assets," she said. The key to a successful initiative will come with visits and meetings by state officials "to listen to community needs and identify assets," she said.
Then officials will work on funding.
"Once projects have been identified, the task force will then explore a variety of funding opportunities based on specific project descriptions, led by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development," Schofinski said. Sources could include existing state funds, public and private partnerships, nonprofit organization support and grant funding.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.