Businesses and government officials in west Tennessee are making a concerted effort to bolster tourism in the region through capitalizing on assets like Reelfoot Lake and Discovery Park of America to promoting on-farm experiences and outdoor sports. The Discovery Park of America and Obion County Chamber of Commerce hosted a tourism summit this week, with the new Tennessee Commissioner of Tourist Development, Mark Ezell.
Discovery Park of America President and CEO Scott Williams said it's important for stakeholders to come together to package northwest Tennessee as a tour and travel product. “I could go out there and let people know how great Discovery Park of America is and we can get them here. But then when they get here, we need them to have a hotel to stay in, a place to go have entertainment - maybe dinner - and a then a place to go and rent some kayaks and enjoy Reelfoot Lake. The future is very bright for tourism for this area. We’re just going to have to get together and do some hard work," Williams said.
Benefitting From A Tourism Economy
Williams suggested everyone benefits from a strong tourism economy. He said people need to know they're likely paying less taxes because of people coming to the area and spending money. "You might not be in the tour and travel business, but your pocketbook is a little heavier with money because of the tour and travel business. So the more we can generate, the better it is for all of us," he said.
Commissioner Mark Ezell echoed that point. “We have the second highest state sales tax in the nation - state and local," he said. "Why is that good news? Because it means that everybody that we can talk to coming in from out of state into our state and leaving us that 9.75 - spending it with us in our hotels and our restaurants and our tourist attractions - and then leaving and going home and not having the infrastructure - what a great deal!”
Ezell said a county not engaged in tourism effort is missing out, "Because it is the way to get people to come in, leave you dollars for state and local, and then leave and you don’t have all the infrastructure.”
He touted increases in tourism growth in the state in recent years: in 2013, tourism delivered $835 million to the state. That number increased to more than $1 billion in 2018 and he wants to take it further over the next two years. “What’s great is that we are delivering all this money to help teachers get funded and firefighters and police officers and all that," he said.
Most of that revenue comes from the largest metro areas and Sevier County (Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, etc.). According to Ezell, about 78 counties account for only 12%. He argued that, with some help from the state, the numbers coming from rural areas - like northwest Tennessee, can grow.
To help with rural growth, the state is opening a new office of rural tourism in July. The office will help rural counties with asset identification and innovative partnerships. ”We really believe that a lot of folks in some areas don’t realize the amazing assets that can be turned into terrific brands. And so, therefore, we’ll be working with people to identify those assets and help them grow them," he said.
For rural areas like northwest Tennessee, experts say there's economic potential in agritourism. Scott Parrott is Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He shared perceptions from an agritourism study he conducted in 2012 and updated in 2013. Anyone who has gone to a pumpkin patch, hay-ride, petting zoo or winery likely engaged in agritourism. Parrott defined this industry as farm-based recreation or on-farm activity. Italians call it, "agriturismo," Parrott said, and noted that Tennessee can learn much from the European country's efforts - where a region like Tuscany is considered a renowned destination for agritourism.
Parrott said while believes the northwest Tennessee region is catching up to the central and eastern parts of the state with regard to agritourism, more could be done to make farmers aware of the opportunities, for instance building a destination for visitors on a patch of land not suitable for row crops and potentially benefiting from the additional revenue stream. He pointed to a map of ag-tourism locations where the northwest region appeared lacking in representation.
Parrott’s survey found a large percentage of agriculture high school teachers in west Tennessee disagreed that ag tourism is important, compared to a more receptive response in the other regions. He called for a policy initiative to change this perception and to include agritourism concepts in curriculums. He found younger teachers more willing to include agritourism in their teaching.
When asked why there should be a policy initiative, Parrott said, "The opportunity to develop, to bring more folks into the area, to keep them here to enjoy the natural beauty that we have here, the impact that we get on the restaurants and the gas stations and hopefully the hotels… Maybe hopefully call this place home one day.”
Parrott pointed out that urban sprawl in areas like Nashville will affect agritourism in the middle of the state. As people come to experience Tennessee, he said, more and more people will be looking to rural areas like northwest Tennessee to have that rural, on-farm experience.
An audience member who has an agritourism business said one challenge is finding part-time labor. Parrott suggested considering hiring people with criminal records who served their time and are looking for work. Another challenge mentioned was the lack of broadband access in west Tennessee. A third concern involved smaller businesses that can’t afford to be on ‘pay-to-play’ tourism maps.
On the topic of agritourism, Commissioner Ezell said his office has already started meeting and planning with the Department of Agriculture to create visitor experience. He noted his background in ag business and Ag Commissioner Charlie Hatcher's background in ag tourism. Both individuals come from the dairy industry.
Offering advice to local businesses, some regional economic development and tourism officials recommended they work as a collective - promoting each other’s businesses and communicating with Convention and Visitors Bureaus and similar agencies, keeping websites and images fresh and of high-quality and building relationships with large tourism entities, such as Graceland.
Commissioner Mark Ezell used the metaphor "takin' bacon" when describing how he envisions growing Tennessee tourism. He explained that 50 million people live in the eight states that touch Tennessee and argued that many of them will take a vacation or leisure trip this year. "So where are they gonna go? That’s where the bacon comes into. How are we gonna get them to come here?"
He recounted a conversation with a farmer about the difficulties in the dairy industry (Ezell has served as President and General Manager of Purity Dairies). “He said, ‘this is really about taking bacon from another man’s hog.’ And I was like ‘Sir?’ ‘You’ve got a hog and you need bacon, but you’d like to take it from somebody else’s so you keep your hog and then you get bacon later.’ ...Really, that’s what tourism is."
With this concept in mind, Ezell talked about ‘takin' bacon' opportunities surrounding the upcoming Country Music documentary series by Ken Burns, which Ezell expects will have more than 40 million viewers. Of the 16 hours of the project, he said, about 70 percent is about Tennessee, a "huge" takin' bacon strategy. “There’s going to be a lot of those 50 million people around us looking to come to Tennessee... It’s a huge win for the State of Tennessee that he picked country music to talk about, which means that he picked Tennessee to talk about.”
In addition to the Burns series, Ezell noted a forthcoming effort to expand Songwriters Week next year, adding multiple rounds to get more involved. Building events like this, he said, will bring people to Tennessee. They'll come in the night before, stay at hotels and spend money in restaurants.
DPA president Scott Williams said it's important that "teamwork" came out as a theme in the tourism summit. Keeping up that momentum involves funding. Williams said that step includes figuring out how to fund someone whose job it is to get tour and traffic to the area. Another stakeholder meeting is scheduled for a couple months from now. He hopes for more tourism summits, at least annually.