Oak Ridge, Anderson County still popular destination for tourists

·6 min read

Amid economic concerns, travelers are still coming to Oak Ridge and Anderson County.

Stephanie Wells, director of Adventure Anderson County, which promotes tourism in the Anderson County area, said it is possible that rising gasoline prices may even be increasing tourism in the area.

Two boys learn how to use a cross cut saw at the Museum of Appalachia. Area attractions such as this museum, the American Museum of Science and Energy, the Oak Ridge History Museum and Windrock Park drive tourists to Oak Ridge and the surrounding area.
Two boys learn how to use a cross cut saw at the Museum of Appalachia. Area attractions such as this museum, the American Museum of Science and Energy, the Oak Ridge History Museum and Windrock Park drive tourists to Oak Ridge and the surrounding area.
Pictured are Julie Graham, co-chair and Middle East Tennessee tourism council director; from left, Stephanie Wells, co-chair and Adventure Anderson County director; Glennis Monday, Campbell County litter grant officer, Keith Montgomery, Big Ridge park manager and Veronica Greear, Norris Dam State Park manager.
Pictured are Julie Graham, co-chair and Middle East Tennessee tourism council director; from left, Stephanie Wells, co-chair and Adventure Anderson County director; Glennis Monday, Campbell County litter grant officer, Keith Montgomery, Big Ridge park manager and Veronica Greear, Norris Dam State Park manager.

"I am predicting that inflation and gas prices will not have much of a negative effect on our area. These factors will probably lead to an increase in visitation to our area. Every year, we have seen an increase even through the recession of 2008. I think it boils down to, Americans will still travel, even through a recession or a pandemic, and they are more likely to visit a destination that is closer to home and more affordable," she said. "A lot of people also bought 'toys' during the pandemic that they still need a place to use, like boats, off-road vehicles, RVs, etc."

Both she and Katy Watt, president of Explore Oak Ridge, an organization funded by hotel and motel taxes that promotes tourism in the Oak Ridge area, cited various signs that local tourism is going strong or possibly even increasing this year.

Watt said the COVID-19 pandemic didn't harm area tourism as much as it could have.

Katy Watt, Explore Oak Ridge president
Katy Watt, Explore Oak Ridge president

"Even though the pandemic hit tourism hard across the entire state, having an extensive selection of outdoor activities and our proximity to Windrock were extremely beneficial to our hotel industry in the city of Oak Ridge. Luckily, none of our hotels had to completely close their doors during the height of the pandemic like in other areas of the country," she stated. "We have not seen any major changes in tourism yet, due to gas prices. Prices in the Southeast have not gotten as high as in other parts of the country, and that

is a positive for tourism in Tennessee overall."

Labor shortage

A recent labor shortage has sent companies competing for workers, including those in service positions, but Wells is optimistic.

"The feedback that I have received from our hotels and attractions is that the labor shortage has evened out. There are still problems, but for the most part, they have been able to fill the positions lost because of the pandemic," she stated.

Some positive trends

Both Watt and Wells spoke of positive trends. For the first 10 months of Fiscal Year 2022, Watt stated, Oak Ridge hotels have averaged an overall occupancy rate of 64.6%, with a weekend rate of 67.1%. Hotel occupancy and collection of occupancy taxes is tracking at a four-year high for the city.

"We are seeing a slightly larger number of visitors coming into the Visitor Center than we did last year. From early indications, we are averaging 15% more visitors stopping by the office. We are expecting a good summer turnout and have booked several bus tours that have added a stop in Oak Ridge to their itinerary," she stated.

"We are seeing a return of festivals to Oak Ridge with the Flatwater Storytelling Festival and Lavender Festival both returning to live events. The USA Cycling Time Trials ... along Melton Lake Drive and the Rivers Run subdivision in Oak Ridge. ..."

"Spring Break for rowing was good this year. A total of 25 teams came to Oak Ridge for spring training, and that didn’t include any of our normal teams from Canada that were not allowed to travel this year," she added.

The Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta brought 49 teams to Oak Ridge on the weekend of April 14 through 16, with more than 1,500 competitors on the water of Melton Lake, Watt stated.

The American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) Regatta  May 19 through 22 brought 1,560 rowers, representing 68 teams to row on the water of Melton Lake. There were 34 states represented in this event. It was the first year that Oak Ridge has hosted this regatta.

"That weekend, 94% of our hotel rooms were occupied! As you can see, rowing, Windrock (Park) and our rich assortment of outdoor activities both on and off the water that are within Oak Ridge and our surrounding counties provides a positive impact on our city, especially during spring and summer months," Watt stated.

Oak Ridge Rowing Association (ORRA) welcomed select collegiate rowing teams on Melton Hill Lake for its annual two-day Oak Ridge Louisville Cardinal Invitational on March 19 through the 20..
Oak Ridge Rowing Association (ORRA) welcomed select collegiate rowing teams on Melton Hill Lake for its annual two-day Oak Ridge Louisville Cardinal Invitational on March 19 through the 20..

Wells similarly said Anderson County continues to see an increase in hotel and motel tax collections.

"There are three factors that contribute to that increase. One, we are stilling seeing an increase in visitation. Our outdoor recreation attractions are still attracting visitors, not to mention we are in a great location and an affordable destination. Two, there are more lodging opportunities with a new hotel at the Clinton exit and new short-term rentals. Compounded with the fact that the state of Tennessee is now collecting hotel taxes from the short-term rental unit marketplaces like AirB&B.com and VRBO.com and remitting those funds to the counties, which has led to an increase in revenue. And, three, the lodging rates have increased in turn, generating more tax dollars. Note that this has also contributed to some of the sales tax (revenue) increase that the county and cities are experiencing," she stated.

Where are the tourists coming from?

Watt stated the Explore Oak Ridge Visitor Center has seen an increase in visitors, phone calls and website visits from people living in Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Chicago and California. She said many visitors live drive two to three hours to Oak Ridge from their homes.

Wells said based on analytics of the people requesting information on Anderson County and visiting the Adventure Anderson County website, interest came "from all directions."  Most visitors, she said, used to come from north of Anderson County, along the Interstate 75 corridor from places like Cincinnati, Lexington and Detroit. For the last year and a half, however, she said she has seen a spike in visitors to the website from Nashville and Atlanta. Asheville, Chicago and Birmingham are also in the Top 10 metropolitan areas of people visiting the website, she stated.

Strengths

"One of our strengths in Oak Ridge, Anderson County and Roane County is that we are within a half-day drive of many major cities in the Southeast. Families can visit here for a weekend and enjoy our rich history or our outdoor activities without spending too much time traveling. Regionally we have so much to offer to a wide range of travelers. Even if we have visitors from surrounding counties, they are still spending money in our city, like buying food, shopping in our stores, buying gas and visiting our attractions! That all translates to an increase in tax dollars to Oak Ridge," Watt stated.

"There are several things that bring our visitors. Heritage tourism and our unique story is the reason that a majority of our visitors come to town. Being a National Park is an added bonus to our heritage tourism. We also have a rich assortment of outdoor activities from hiking, biking, golfing, rowing, fishing and team sports that draw in a large number of our overnight visitors. Oak Ridge is close enough to Windrock that we see a large number of visitors staying in town and driving the short distance to participate in the off-road activities they offer. Our mild climate has shown that visitors to Windrock come year round to enjoy the great outdoors and come back to Oak Ridge for meals and evening entertainment," she added.

Ben Pounds is a staff reporter for The Oak Ridger. Call him at (865) 441-2317, email him at bpounds@oakridger.com and follow him on Twitter @Bpoundsjournal.

This article originally appeared on Oakridger: Oak Ridge, Anderson County still popular destination for tourists