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VOL. 36 | NO. 26 | Friday, June 29, 2012

Sharing tourism’s wealth

Amateur sports, special events help Midstate counties enjoy record year

By Linda Bryant

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Sure, Nashville is major national tourist destination that attracts more than 11 million annually. But surrounding counties are in the process of building tourist empires of their own, using ever-increasing tourist-related tax revenues to strengthen their communities.

Butch Spyridon, president of Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, says Nashville often acts as a “hook and a hub” for tourism that filters out from the core of the city.

But leaders from neighboring counties say it’s not all about Nashville. Some are bringing their own brand of visitors with specialty sporting events, historical attractions, fishing and boating, and cultural and music festivals.

Still, it’s hard to deny the far-reaching power of the Music City USA brand.

“The greater success Nashville has, the more it spreads out,” Spyridon says. “When tourists and visitors come to this area, they don’t know about county lines.”

Spyridon says he’s not surprised tourism is on the rise in neighboring counties and cities because Nashville and Davidson County also are seeing a big spike.

“We are having an incredibly strong year,” he says. “It’s a record year in hotel and motel taxes and number of rooms sold.”

Demand for rooms is up more than 16 percent, Spyridon says, and occupancy is up almost 18 percent. The most telling number, however, is the increase in hotel and motel taxes this year, up almost 27 percent compared to last year’s $22.8 million.

Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau’s fiscal year ends June 30.

Spyridon says he’s impressed with how aggressively some surrounding counties have pursued national and regional specialty sporting events such as soccer, softball, baseball, dodge ball, lacrosse and fishing tournaments.

“They are doing a great job with them, and these are events that are usually quite lucrative,” he says.

Rutherford County is among the most successful in the region at hosting sports events. Murfreesboro was recently named one of the Top 10 Soccer Cites in the nation by Livability.com, a national website that highlights more than 500 of America’s best places to live and visit.

The city’s $12.9 million Richard Siegel Soccer Complex, which features 15 fields and a championship showcase stadium, has hosted several regional and national events for US Youth Soccer. City officials say that hosting the US Youth Soccer Southern Regionals in 2011 brought in more than $8 million to the local economy.

Another sporting event – the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s yearly Spring Fling – brings in at least $5 million. The massive competition attracts high school track and field, tennis, baseball, boys’ soccer and softball teams and their families from every corner of the state.

“Sports are going to carry us for the summer,” says Mona Herring, vice-president of the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Herring says tourism growth is continuing to go up because the county is committed to keeping existing events while working hard to create new venues and reel in new events.

“We are adding tournaments every year,” she says. “There’s a growing momentum. We have new tennis courts coming in August, and are also becoming known as one of the best soccer venues in the Southeast.”

Rutherford County also is attracting mid-sized conventions and corporate events with the 4-year-old Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center. Herring says being 30 minutes from Nashville and close to corporate juggernauts such as Nissan, Dell and Bridgestone is a big help in luring business.

Lodging in the city of 101,000 was filled to capacity June 7-10 during Bonnaroo, the nationally popular music festival that takes place yearly in nearby Manchester, Herring adds.

Clarkville and surrounding communities in Montgomery County don’t have the luxury of a convention center, but officials say tourism has increased steadily over the past decade.

“We are able to create a destination for people looking for an alternate to Louisville and Nashville,” says James Chavez, president and CEO of the Clarksville Area Chamber of Commerce. “Over a 10-year period, we’ve gone from 22nd in the state to fourth in participation in economic development and tourism.”

Sports and entertainment events also are a big draw in the area. More than 200 sports teams will come to Clarksville for various events in July alone, says Theresa Harrington, executive director of the Clarksville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Like Rutherford County to the south, Montgomery County builds on past success while scouting for new events. Last year it added the Go Commando Half Marathon & 5k run, which it plans to hold annually, and snagged the Tennessee Valley Lineman Rodeo, a two-day pole climbing competition for the employees of Tennessee Valley Authority power distributors. Harrington says she’s in the process of trying to land a deal with a national horseshoe championship.

“Recreational tourism is going to continue to grow,” Harrington says. “We’re also growing in tourism that’s not actually based on a direct stop, but often a one- or two-day side trip to a larger vacation.

“Another thing going for us is our proximity to Fort Campbell. People come when soldiers come and when they leave.”

There’s also been a substantial increase in stops by group tour buses on their way to destinations such as Chicago, Ill. and Branson, Mo. The county’s signature yearly music festival, Rivers and Spires, attracts 30,000-45,000 people each April, Harrington adds.

Barry Young, executive director of the Sumner County Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the county took a hit during the recession in 2009 but has seen increases every year since.

“Regional tourism continues to look up here,” Young says. “Our hotel occupation tax has been up every month this year, which lets us know more people are staying in our hotels and motels.”

Old Hickory Lake is increasingly popular for professional fishing tournaments. Team sporting events are growing, too. The county has picked up the annual Music City Hits softball tournament, a competition that attracts young women’s softball teams from 10 states including Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee, Illinois, Mississippi, Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina and Alabama.

Sumner County also is the yearly site for a popular international off-road triathlon, the Xterra Lock 4 Blast.

One of the top revenue-producing events in Wilson County is the Continental Amateur Baseball Association’s World Series, says Ricky Rodriguez, director of the Wilson County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Our big draws come from consumer shows, festivals, amateur athletics, local points of interest and our proximity to Nashville,” Rodriquez says. “We also believe travelers are staying closer to home and visiting friends and families in Tennessee.”

Demand for rooms in Wilson County has grown by almost 17 percent this year, and hotel and motel room occupancy has increased by about 18 percent, Rodriquez adds.

Spyridon says most neighboring counties are members of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, which means the organization includes them in promotions and often partners with them on special projects.

For example, Cheatham County recently approached NCVB about a mutual campaign portraying it as Nashville’s recreational backyard, a place for canoeing, fishing and day-tripping.

“For so many of our visitors, Nashville is the straw that stirs the drink,” Spyridon says.

“We’re all benefitting from each other.”

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