Region links outdoor recreation with economic progress

The Creeper Trail in Abingdon, Va.

By A.J. Kaufman, Managing Editor

Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and the Appalachian Highlands as a whole are desirable places to live and work; one reason is the bountiful outdoor activities residents can enjoy, no matter the season. With spring here and summer not far behind, the significant impact of outdoor recreation on local economies is worth showcasing, as the region’s natural assets have become a driving force behind a burgeoning tourism industry.

Local leadership is thrilled about the future of the Southern Gap Initiative in Grundy, Va., especially with the eventual completion of their 2,000-seat outdoor Amphitheatre, situated adjacent to Southern Gap Outdoor Adventure. The amphitheater will host live music, speaking engagements, weddings, sports, corporate events and more.

“This strategic placement next to our tourism hub, which offers elk viewing, ATV trails, camping, and cabin rentals, promises to create a dynamic synergy,” Matthew Fields, director of Economic Development & Tourism for Buchanan County, told the Business Journal. “The addition of live music at the amphitheater, alongside the visitor’s center, will undoubtedly bolster ecotourism throughout the county. Moreover, the annual lottery for the elk hunt, organized by the Department of Wildlife and Resources, further enhances the allure of our location.”

With the recent opening of the Coalfields Expressway, Southern Gap now lies within 10 miles of the Breaks Interstate Park, presenting visitors with a host of additional opportunities. The county is working to get new housing developments ready by summer or early fall.

“Recognizing the paramount importance of outdoor recreation to the region, we are committed to expanding our offerings through interconnected projects, including additional housing developments, the establishment of a new regional airport and more,” Fields added.

Closer to the Tri-Cities, The Virginia Creeper Trail has again been recognized as one of the top biking trails in the country by readers of Blue Ridge Magazine and USA Today. One of the oldest rail-trail conversions in the US, the 34-mile Creeper Trail meanders from Whitetop, Va., through Damascus and into historic Abingdon, crossing 47 trestle bridges along the way.

According to Virginia Creeper Trail Conservancy Executive Director Lisa Kestner Quigley, the new Creeper Trail Visitors Center, housed in the famous “red caboose” in Damascus Town Park, will open in May.

High Knob Destination Center, just outside Norton, Va. Photo courtesy of Katie Dunn

The City of Norton will open the High Knob Destination Center later this year. Located at the base of High Knob off State Route 619, the 5,300-square-foot facility highlights the region’s wealth of recreational opportunities and its rich biodiversity, culture, and history.

In addition to providing visitors with information, the center will feature interpretive exhibits and offer a variety of educational programming and activities. Future projects include building a hiking and mountain biking trail that starts at the Center and travels to the High Knob summit. The city is also working to build a pedestrian pathway to link downtown Norton to the Destination Center and, ultimately, High Knob.

“These initiatives, along with other ongoing economic development projects in Norton and the High Knob Region, will better help market the region’s communities and connect them to High Knob,” Katie Dunn, Community Engagement & Tourism Director for the City of Norton, explained to the Business Journal. “The center and trail connections will provide a catalyst for helping existing businesses expand and creating more opportunities for new tourism- and recreation-focused businesses to open.”

Photo by Earl Neikirk,

On the Tennessee side, recent months brought momentous opportunities to Johnson City. The accumulation of those efforts was witnessed with the opening of the city’s first Visitor Center. Perched in the historic downtown district, since opening its doors to the public last November, more than 1,000 guests have entered this “immersive, interactive experience, utilizing cutting-edge technology never before seen in a visitor center,” according to Alec Castro, director of sales and public relations for Visit Johnson City.

The county’s leisure and hospitality sales tax collection also was up 8% last year, and the local lodging tax collection grew 4%, with a total of $2.86 million, per Castro.

“Sports, motorcycles, and small meetings continue to choose Johnson City as their host destination,” he added. “From the 39 events tracked, $9.5 million of economic impact was generated from these groups.”

Above the town sits one of the premier biking destinations in the region. Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park is situated in Johnson City and offers an exhilarating outdoor experience for riders of all skill levels. Featuring more than 40 acres of diverse, often wooded terrain, the park offers routes for all experience levels, accompanied by wonderful views of the region’s largest city and landscape beyond. Businesses like Trek Bicycles have thrived because of the trail and its existence has positively impacted downtown businesses and hotels.

All in all, the region is ramping up efforts to not only motivate people to enjoy the great outdoors but augment economic development via recreational tourism.

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