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Adventure Tourism Mecca in the Making

McMinnville-Warren County looking to cash in on wealth of outdoor riches

It’s almost always possible to imagine better living arrangements or conditions than one’s current circumstances.

But recognizing that the grass isn’t really always greener somewhere else often enables a person not only to enjoy a more contented and fulfilling existence in present time and place, but also to realize that opportunities exist right in one’s own backyard that others may in fact tend to envy.

To that end, business and political leaders in McMinnville have commissioned a comprehensive report demonstrating that, when it comes to the economic potential of tourism in the area, the grass is already pretty green in Warren County.

And it has the potential of getting greener all the time.

The “Adventure Tourism Plan for McMinnville-Warren County, Tennessee,” released in March after more than a year in the making, lends persuasive and meticulous support to a view that’s been dawning for the past decade on many who call the area home.

The plan’s thesis is this: As a result of its location and surrounding natural features and recreational assets — with hills, mountains, scenic rivers, lakes and exceptional beauty abounding that “cannot be created by the hands of man” — Warren County is distinctly suited to take advantage of Tennessee’s thriving tourism industry, with McMinnville serving as an “adventure hub.”

“Due to McMinnville-Warren County’s geographic location on the Eastern Highland Rim and at the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, natural resources are in abundance with the Collins, Barren Fork, and Caney Fork rivers, Cumberland Caverns – a United States National Natural Landmark, and eight state parks/natural areas within 50 miles,” according to the plan, which was written by Griggs & Maloney, a Murfreesboro-based environmental-engineering planning and consulting firm.

Paid for using part of a $28,000 state tourism development grant, the Adventure Tourism Plan functions as a strategic blueprint for business, community leaders and entrepreneurs to grow the local tourism economy. It also serves as an impressive “inventory of places and activities” already attracting visitors heading out on Tennessee highways looking for adventure.

McMinnville Mayor Jim Haley

“For a long time, our community didn’t really see our natural beauty and our environmental assets as really a selling point,” said McMinnville Mayor Jimmy Haley. “But over the last few years, more and more people have been starting to see that using the mountains and caves and rivers and great climate and lushness all plays into a bigger picture. Those things already are here, we don’t have to build them, and opportunities are basically endless. So there’s no reason we can’t use that as an asset and strategy of get other people to come and appreciate it as well.”

Tapping TN Tourism

The backdrop for the bigger picture is that the Volunteer State as a whole is doing quite well in the realm of tourism development.

Tourism is among the state’s most booming economic sectors, with expenditures from the estimated 110 million people who visited Tennessee surpassing $19.3 billion in 2016, the most recent year comprehensive data is available. That was up 4.7 percent over the previous year, and marked the 11th consecutive year that tourism topped a billion dollars in state and local sales tax revenue.

In 2017, Tennessee earned a ranking — for the fourth consecutive year — among the Top 10 travel destinations in the U.S. And last year it was also deemed the fastest-growing state in America for international travel.

Visitation and spending by nonresidents in Warren County has been rising the past several years as well, as has attendance at state parks in the area, like Rock Island, South Cumberland and Fall Creek Falls.

While “laying a roadmap for the next 20 years” for tourism development in McMinnville and Warren County is a central purpose the adventure plan serves, Haley added that it can also be read as a promotional initiative for the entire region.

“We have to quit thinking of ourselves as singular units,” he said. “When people come to McMinnville, they might decide to go up to Sparta to the Calfkiller Brewery or over to the distillery at Short Mountain. When someone is coming to Cumberland Caverns or the Isha Yoga Center or they’re coming here for the Muskie Tournament or one of our other music venues, or if they’re just floating down the river, they’re not worried whether it’s Warren County. They don’t know if it is White County, Van Buren County or Warren County. All the rivers converge at Rock Island.”

As large metropolitan areas in Tennessee and beyond continue expanding as time goes on, “more and more people are going to be looking for outdoor opportunities,” said Ryan Maloney of Griggs & Maloney, the agency that drafted the plan.

Undoubtedly, more and more are going to discover that the Upper Cumberland is a “jewel,” he said.

Choose Your Own Adventure

An “adventure tourism trip” is generally described by travel-economy analysts and marketing industry professionals as one in which an individual, family or group travels to an area outside their normal realm of day-to-day lifestyle preoccupations for the purpose of engaging in some form of physical activity in a natural environment or as part of some “culturally immersive experience.”

Adventure tourism encompasses more than just higher-energy, adrenaline-elevating activities like rock climbing, mountain and road biking, caving, backcountry backpacking, zip-lining and kayaking — all of which are common activities in or around Warren County. It could also involve consciousness-elevating pursuits like simply exploring some new natural landscape or setting out to gain improved knowledge of, or a better appreciation for, how people live or used to live in a place of historical or ecological interest.

“The definitions of adventure tourism vary as much as the activities,” explains the plan, which catalogs a dizzying index of adventure-seeking pursuits one can embark upon in the vicinity.

Among them are kayaking, rafting, canoeing, paddle boarding, trophy sport fishing, motorized water sports of all manner, road cycling, mountain biking, skydiving, cave exploration trips, zip lining, bungee jumping, geocaching, target shooting, hang gliding/paragliding, historical tours and a spectacularly scenic yoga sanctuary boasting the largest meditation hall in the Western Hemisphere.

“Within 45 miles a visitor can explore eight state parks, access over 125 miles of hiking trails, mountain bike trails, kayaking, numerous waterfalls, caves, zip lining and ropes courses, numerous fishing opportunities, an 18-hole golf course, and a 1,500 to 2,000 year old stone fort,” notes the report. Also nearby are “two recreational lakes and three rivers that could easily be listed as wild and scenic.”

Besides all the natural beauty and recreational draw of the area, visitors are also lured by “the cultural resources that represent the heritage of the communities (that) are the tangible link to the past generations who established McMinnville-Warren County many years ago.”

Many activities, places and events that “meld heritage and adventure together to form a more experience based tourism” are in Warren County, the plan states. And McMinnville in particular — a “quintessential small town” with an attractive and active downtown and “tree lined streets” — is ideally stationed as a jumping-off point for adventure tourism throughout the region.

“McMinnville is unique in that it can function simultaneously as both a hub and destination within Warren County and the surrounding region for Adventure Tourism,” according to the plan, which notes that four major urban population centers home to an estimated 2.92 million people are within an easy two-hour drive of downtown McMinnville.

“Just as the natural beauty and the landscape of McMinnville-Warren County has created business and commerce that is still evident in the landscape today, more and more people, both residents and visitors, are coming to experience and interact with the natural beauty of the area and experience the small town main street feel of McMinnville,” the plan’s authors wrote.

McMinnville is, in fact, one of 35 nationally accredited “Main Street” communities in Tennessee.

Mandy Eller, McMinnville-Warren County Chamber of Commerce president.

Like Mayor Haley, Chamber of Commerce President Mandy Eller is among those who believe it makes sense to market McMinnville and Warren County more energetically to visitors seeking physically active getaways and rewarding cultural experiences.

“That is an opportunity for the whole Upper Cumberland — maybe we can build it as a model and then they can do it across the whole region,” she said of the Adventure Tourism Plan blueprint.

Eller, who grew up the daughter of a nurseryman and then became the wife of one, said she’s always been engaged in the community. But she acknowledges there were times as a younger adult when she took some of the region’s beauty, history and outdoor recreation for granted. But once she had children of her own, Eller said she became determined to instill in them a sense of pride in their hometown and county. That in turn led her to discovering things about the area for herself that she never knew.

Her impression now is that she’s immeasurable fortunate to live and raise a family of her own in a land of unbounded allure, potential and promise.

“We are completely spoiled here, we really are,” Eller said.

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Appalachian Center for Craft Connects Kids with Art Skills

Press Release from Tennessee Tech University, March 21, 2018:

Middle schoolers learn crafts hands-on at Craft Center

Tennessee Tech University’s Appalachian Center for Craft hosted students from Janis Nunnally’s eighth grade art class from Upperman Middle School as part of its Outreach Program recently.

Students chose a medium in which to work and got hands-on experience in that craft. They made hooks in blacksmithing, enameled copper, made glass beads, learned clay hand-building and slip decorating techniques, carved wooden spoons, Shibori dyed silk, and, on the second day of outreach, a book-making class was offered.

Nunnally has been bringing her students to the Craft Center for years.

“Taking UMS eighth graders on their annual trip to the Appalachian Center for Crafts is always a wonderful experience,” Nunnally said. “The students discover a world outside of their community while finding out that they can create amazing things!”

During the more than thirty years of its existence, this outreach program has served tens of thousands of students from the Upper Cumberland and from as far away as Memphis and Chattanooga. The program allows eighth through 12th grade students to experience college-level, hands-on art activities in professionally equipped studios on the craft center campus.

“The students got the opportunity to create projects that we are not able to do at school,” Nunnally said. “They did amazing work and were so proud of their artwork. It is a joy to work with Gail Gentry on this field trip, she is always able to be calm and make it all work!”

It is funded in part by the Tennessee Arts Commission. To learn more about the Appalachian Center for Craft, visit https://www.tntech.edu/craftcenter/.

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Lee Leads Expeditions in Imagination at Liberty Paper

DeKalb County artist expands frontiers of experimental creativity

Claudia Lee loves what she does and loves living where she does it.

Growing up in Connecticut and New Jersey, Lee always knew she wanted to live in Tennessee.

“When I was little, I had a best friend and he and I were determined to move to Tennessee because that is where Davy Crockett was from. We were big Davy Crockett fans,” recalls Lee, who 20 years ago moved to the woodsy slopes and shady hollers northeast of Dowelltown. Prior to that she spent three decades in the Tri-Cities area, in fact not far from Crockett’s Greene County birthplace.

Lee has become something of a pioneer in her own right — not just living, as she does, encompassed by DeKalb County’s timberland wilds — but as an artist. On an old farmstead along Cripps Road, she’s made a home and runs her Liberty Paper art studio amidst the tall pines, thick cedar and sturdy hardwoods, by a small stream that runs down to Smith Fork Creek.

Lee’s artistic expertise lies in handcrafting colorfully elaborate paper — typically from raw fibrous plant materials, like flax and leaves of abaca, a species of banana tree native to the Philippines. In turn, she masterfully stitches, weaves, molds and otherwise shapes the paper into elegant sculptures, ornamental boxes, wall pieces, decorative lamps, table adornments and richly detailed book covers and scrapbook pages.

Lee says she’s always experimenting, always making unique paper sheets with novel textures, hues and consistencies.

She’s collected numerous honors and recognitions for her expressive spirit and innovative initiative over the years.

In 2011, she was commissioned to design the various individual Governor’s Awards that the Tennessee Arts Commission biennially bestows upon the Volunteer State’s most creative contributors to the arts and cultural life. “The awards themselves represent artistic genius from some of the finest working artists across the state of Tennessee,” the commission’s website declares.

Light sculptures by Claudia Lee.

Lee’s latest accolade came in the form of a cover-feature and six-page photo spread of her work in this summer’s edition of a national quarterly magazine called Bound & Lettered, which is prominent in the world of bookbinding, papercraft and calligraphy. In addition, the editors asked her to craft an essay detailing her fascination with papermaking.

Lee wrote that her vision has always been to “develop a signature body of work” which would blend “many textile techniques, including weaving, spinning, dyeing, and stitching.” But it’s the methods of her undertakings, as much or more even than the finished products, that fulfill her yearning for artistic adventure.

“When you make paper almost every day for more than thirty years, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the magic of the process,” Lee wrote. “It begins with a humble plant growing in yard, field, or woods; cooking the plant to remove non-cellulosic materials; beating it into pulp; and adding the pulp to a vat of water.

“Next is stirring the vat with your hands,” she continued. “An experienced papermaker can tell by the feel of the pulp in the water if the amount of pulp is sufficient for a sheet. With each dip of the mould and deckle into the vat, the sheet miraculously forms before your eyes.”

Lee doesn’t see her artistic role solely as one of blazing new trails and charting exploratory courses on her own. She gains great satisfaction and gratification in teaching the techniques of her craft both to novices and other experienced artists.

Lee said papermaking was something she learned “from the ground up.”

She knew immediately it was something she wanted to learn when she first encountered it at a craft school decades ago. It’s something that often draws people in from the moment they see it, she said.

“Sometimes people just walk into the studio and that’s it,” Lee said. “It is very tactile. And it is immediately accessible to people.”

Getting started “is so easy to do,” she said.

“I have worked with small children and handicapped kids, they can all make paper,” said Lee. “So it is a very friendly medium. If you make a mistake, you dump it back in and make another one. It is user-friendly, easy to do and you can do it very simply at home with very little equipment.”

One of Lee’s primary objectives when instructing people is to teach them in a way that build their confidence and understanding of the process, so they indeed can do it again on their own. “I want them to go home and do it,” she said. “I don’t want them to be like, OK, I did that once, now what?”

Those who take an immediate interest have sometimes become absorbed already with scrapbooking or notecards or activities that require purchasing a lot of paper at a craft store. “It’s kind of the next step up to make your own paper,” Lee said.

Working with established artists who’re already proficient in some other medium is also rewarding, she said. Helping them incorporate their own handmade paper into other projects and creations enables them to dive deeper into their own creative processes.

“People can design a unique sheet of paper for their work, so that no one else is going to have that kind of paper,” Lee said. “And the great thing about making your paper if you are an artist is you can design what you need. If you run out, you just make more.”

To set up a time to visit with Ms. Lee, tour her studio or inquire about attending classes or purchasing her work, email her at libertypapermaking@gmail.com. Visit her website at claudialeepaper.com.