Two years ago, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation — at the prompting of State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston — that allowed ATVs on S.R. 63 through Huntsville on two weekends each year.
It was hailed as a major win for a county with a fledgling ATV tourism industry that was attracting thousands of off-road enthusiasts each year, to the apparent chagrin of the Tennessee Department of Safety. Through his legislation, Yager achieved a compromise between local tourism promoters and the Department of Safety. The new law was a shot in the arm for businesses along the S.R. 63 corridor, which unanimously supported efforts to open the highway to ATVs during Huntsville’s two busiest weekends of the year.
At the time, S.R. 63 became just the second highway in the state to be opened to ATVs. The other was a portion of S.R. 116 in Anderson County, in the vicinity of Windrock.
But that was two years ago, and the landscape is quickly changing with regards to off-highway vehicles. ATV tourism has become something of an arms race in the Cumberlands, with Campbell, Anderson and Morgan counties all attempting to cash in. And in an arena where local leaders are powerless to ease restrictions on ATVs without the blessing of the state legislature, Scott County is at risk of getting left behind.
Tourism officials in at least one of those aforementioned counties have made no secret of the fact that they want to cash in on Scott County’s success with ATV tourism. Behind closed doors, the question has been asked: “Why should ATV riders go all the way to Huntsville when there are riding areas right on the interstate?”
It’s also no secret, at least not among those familiar with the inner workings of tourism in the Cumberlands, that tourism promoters in Scott County and Anderson County have butted heads a bit. It isn’t that the two counties are sworn enemies or even anything less than neighbors and allies, but when there is a finite number of paying ATV tourists and four different counties that want a share of them . . . well, there are only so many ways the pie can be cut.
Scott County isn’t the birthplace of ATV tourism, not even in Tennessee. The Coal Creek OHV riding area at Windrock was around long before anyone in Scott County turned off-road riding into a business model. But Brimstone took things to an entirely new level and, in many respects, put the Cumberland Mountains on the map within the off-roading community. Soon, thousands of ATV enthusiasts who had never heard of the Cumberlands, or at least had never visited here, were flocking to Brimstone for events or just a weekend of riding, and other businesses in neighboring counties have sprung up as a direct result of the increased traffic.
So you can see why Scott County must guard against being left behind. Currently, legislation is nearing passage that will allow ATVs to be on S.R. 63 until midnight on two days each year (the current law limits ATV usage of the highway to daylight hours only), which will accommodate the Saturday night concerts during Brimstone’s event weekends. The bill, sponsored by Yager and Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, is a positive step forward for Scott County’s ATV tourism efforts.
But that legislation isn’t enough. Because while ATV riders in Scott County are still limited to highway riding just two weekends each year, neighboring communities are getting a big leg up.
ATVs are already allowed on U.S. Hwy. 25W through Rocky Top on any day of the year, and legislation that appears headed for the governor’s desk will allow ATVs on S.R. 116 all the way from Rocky Top to Petros on any day of the year. Separate legislation, which also seems headed for passage, will allow ATVs on numerous sections of state highways in Campbell County on any day of the year — including portions of S.R. 63 between the Scott County line and Interstate 75.
The early returns, based on two years of ATV traffic on S.R. 63, shows that highway safety hasn’t been jeopardized by the off-highway vehicles’ presence on the roadway during event weekends. There have been no accidents involving ATVs on S.R. 63 on the legal weekends during that time frame.
It is a bit of a head-scratcher that ATVs can access the businesses and restaurants in Rocky Top from Windrock or the North Cumberland WMA 365 days a year, but can access the businesses and restaurants in Huntsville from Brimstone or the North Cumberland just four days a year — especially when the same highway, just across the county line, is about to be opened to ATVs 365 days a year.
Getting ATVs on S.R. 63 in 2015 was a big win for Scott County, and a nice gift from the state legislature. But this is 2017, and in a rapidly-changing landscape, more leeway is needed.