An ATV rider wrestles his machine through a mud hole in the Chitwood Mountain area of eastern Scott County. (Independent Herald file photo)
An ATV rider wrestles his machine through a mud hole in the Chitwood Mountain area of eastern Scott County. (Independent Herald file photo)

Editor's Note - The following story is part of the "Stories of a 3-Star Community"  series, presented monthly by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County.

It’s 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and the first looks of weariness are starting to show on the eight faces gathered around a conference table in the loft of the Scott County Visitors Center in Helenwood.

Here, the Scott County Chamber of Commerce’s tourism committee meets once monthly. The noon meeting is intended to be a lunch-hour meeting, but often stretches much longer as events planning is hashed out and new tourism ideas are discussed.

It is at these once-monthly meetings that outside-the-box ideas gain traction; ideas that may be scrapped, but ideas that may also ultimately make it back to the Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors and be implemented as the community and its leaders search for new ways to grow Scott County’s fledgling tourism industry.

On this particular Wednesday, there is talk of the best way to promote Scott County’s “Sizzlin’ September” — a series of events, most of them presented by private groups or businesses — that has come to define Scott County’s annual tourism calendar. There’s discussion about mapping road bike routes in Oneida, as Scott County continues to show up on the radar of more and more cycling enthusiasts. There’s even talk of a “rails-to-trails” program, and whether such an opportunity could prove feasible locally.

Subway sandwich wrappers have been crumpled into balls awaiting their inevitable fate with the wastebasket; legal pads have become doodle pads for idle hands attached to brains lost in thought. But there is still an agenda to plow through before it can be called a day.

It’s nice to have an agenda, says Chamber of Commerce executive director Stacey Kidd. Lengthy agendas can be time-consuming and aggravating, but lengthy agendas also signal a community that is flexing its muscles.

“Good things are happening in Scott County,” Kidd says. “And I truly feel that we’re just getting started.”

It is in this conference space on the second floor of the visitors center where behind-the-scenes work takes place to plan and promote tourism opportunities in Scott County. After the committee members have gone home, Kidd will continue that behind-the-scenes work — there are phone calls to be made, packets to mail out, vendor commitments to firm up . . .

As for those “good things” Kidd speaks of, it’s hard to ignore the way an increasing number of people are realizing this northern Cumberland Plateau region — and Scott County — exists. It has been said that a record number of tourists will visit Scott County this year, to hike and bike the Big South Fork on one end of Scott County, to four-wheel the Cumberland Mountains on the other end, and to attend a variety of events in between.

The Chamber can’t take all the credit for that, of course, and Kidd is quick to point that out. In addition to the natural draws of large public land parcels like the Big South Fork NRRA and the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, private businesses and individuals have seized the opportunity to put Scott County on the map. For starters there are Brimstone Recreation and Trails End Campground. Then there are the businesses — such as Big South Fork Air Park — that have made Wings Over Big South Fork a continuing event.

“For tourism to truly take root in a community, it is important to have a private-public partnership, and we’re seeing some of that in Scott County,” Kidd says. “Our networking partners and our businesses here locally have really made so much of this happen.”

In fact, now that January and February are in the rear-view mirror, there will not be a single month pass in 2014 without a major event of some sort. There was Brimstone Recreation’s WinterFest to kick off March. The month will end with the BSF Vintage Train Fest at Oneida City Park as Norfolk-Southern brings an excursion train to Scott County on March 30.

In April, the Big South Fork NRRA will host its annual Spring Planting Festival at Bandy Creek on April 19. In May, the BSF Vintage Train Fest returns with the N-S vintage steam locomotive powering the excursion train to Oneida from Lexington on two days — Saturday, May 31, and Sunday, June 1. Before that, though, there is perhaps the biggest event weekend of the year — Brimstone’s White Knuckle Event and Trails End’s Full Throttle Event, both scheduled for Memorial Day weekend. Trails End has already announced that Nashville superstar Craig Morgan will headline its event.

In July, the Firemen’s Fourth Festival presented by the Town of Huntsville and Huntsville Fire & Rescue will draw thousands to the old courthouse mall for the annual July 3-4 event. And, in August, Labor Day weekend will feature festivals to close out summer at Brimstone and Trails End.

Sizzlin’ September will feature the Wings Over BSF on Sept. 6, the 2nd annual Big South Fork Bluegrass and Bike Festival at Oneida City Park on Sept. 13, the Haunting in the Hills storytelling festival at Bandy Creek on Sept. 20, and the Heritage Festival at the Museum of Scott County on Sept. 27.

Brandon Hughett, chairman of the Chamber’s tourism committee, points to Norfolk-Southern’s decision to bring the train back three times in 2014 after a successful, sold-out trip in 2013 and says that yet another visit from the railroad could be in the works for later in the year, if all goes well. Like Kidd, Hughett points out that the private-public partnership bodes well for all involved.

“Our area offers so much, including hiking, biking, whitewater kayaking, ATV riding, horseback riding, and so much more,” Hughett says. “Area cabin rentals, hotels, restaurants and other businesses are eager to welcome visitors as an additional industry in our region.”

It is easy to overlook tourism as an industry, but it is.

“Tourism is the number one industry in the State of Tennessee,” says Kidd, who also serves as secretary for the Industrial Development Board of Scott County. “Tourism shouldn’t be thought of as a replacement for manufacturing and other industries that are the backbone of our economy, but tourism can supplement those industries.

“The ID Board is proud to partner with the Chamber, and realizes that tourism in Scott County can become very profitable and become a big boon for this area.”

Over the last seven years, since Brimstone Recreation was first established on 20,000 acres of property once owned by a group of local investors, the northern Cumberland Plateau has become recognized as the nation’s No. 1 destination for ATV enthusiasts — surpassing even Hatfield-McCoy in West Virginia and Harlan County, Ky., in the opinion of some who matter. Existing businesses have benefited — from the Grand Vista Motel to gas stations and restaurants along the S.R. 63 corridor through Huntsville — and new businesses have popped up as a result.

But it isn’t just ATVs that has local tourism promoters excited. There's also the Big South Fork NRRA — a 125,000-acre mecca of adventure tourism opportunities. Sometimes referred to as the secret alternative to the Great Smoky Mountains, it isn't such a secret these days. This month's edition of Southern Living magazine called it "one of the prettiest places in the state."

"Rangers from the Smokies vacation here," Southern Living said of the BSF. "Straddling the Kentucky state line, about three hours from Nashville, it's not as remote as it seems."

The Big South Fork received a coveted “epic” designation from the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) — the world’s foremost mountain biking club — last year, which has spearheaded interest in biking the area. It was that fledgling interest that enticed the Chamber to organize the BSF Bluegrass & Bike Fest last year, and Kidd says that mountain biking appears to be on the cusp of surpassing even horseback riding in popularity here.

Together, these activities and others like them — such as rock-climbing, which is growing in interest in the BSF — are referred to under an umbrella termed “adventure tourism.” Recently, the state has taken measures to aid rural areas in Tennessee with developing those tourism opportunities. And Scott County is such a gold mine of adventure tourism potential that the legislation — signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam in 2011 — was written with Scott County in mind.

Just this week, a local adventure tourism committee appointed by Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals met for the first time to begin the process of establishing adventure tourism zones in Scott County, while the Town of Huntsville is also planning to press forward with a plan to designate part of the town as an adventure tourism zone. Such a designation can mean anything from state assistance with certain laws to tax breaks for tourism-related businesses.

Cheryl Cribbet, who owns Cabins of Elk Run in the Low Gap community, says that the establishment of those adventure tourism zones will be a big step forward.

“It shows that Scott County is looking ahead,” says Cribbet, whose business flourished because of ATV traffic at Brimstone but also caters to other adventure tourists, such as horseback riders. “It shows that we’re not just focused on the present but that we’re looking to the future.”

Saying “there’s something for everyone in Scott County,” Kidd adds that there are opportunities for other entrepreneurs such as Cribbet and her husband, Dennis, to benefit.

“It’s really unlimited,” she says. “Anything from zip-lines to kayaking outfitters to guided hikes, bus tours, race tracks, you name it. We’ve got two race tracks for sale right now, and land available, just waiting to be developed.”

And playing off the old “Field of Dreams” movie theme of, “If you build it, they will come,” an increase in tourism opens up an entirely new can of worms.

“Where are they gonna shop?” Kidd asks. “As tourists show up, they’re gonna want and need places to shop. Antiques shops can benefit, shops with unique items to sale can benefit. Restaurants can benefit. We have two hunting-and-fishing supply stores here already, but what about hiking gear and paddling gear? There is unlimited potential.”

The key, Kidd says, is finding the proper balance.

“When most people think tourism, they think Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg,” Kidd says. “That’s not what we’re after. No one wants to see us become another Pigeon Forge. But you can also look at other small towns around the Smokies and see examples of towns that have benefited greatly from tourism while not losing their small-town feel. Look at Townsend. Look at Maggie Valley (North Carolina). Look at Damascus (Virginia, home of the Virginia Creeper Trail and Appalachian Trail).

“The bottom line is that we want to pursue whatever opportunities are available for Scott County. We want to acknowledge all opportunities to create jobs, wherever that economic growth may be. And tourism is definitely something that has potential.”

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Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.