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Center Hill Lake Turns 70

Bygone days and ways live in memories alone

Standing atop Center Hill Dam or Hurricane Bridge today, it’s easy to forget that homestead activity and rural enterprise once flourished along the hillsides and throughout river bottom lands now submerged under the lake’s expansive waterline.

But across Tennessee during the great federal dam-building decades of the 20th Century, old manners and modes of living were drowned out and washed away as reservoir waters rose behind hydroelectric impoundments that still serve as monuments to modern engineering and industrial technology.

Prior to the dam’s construction, which was completed in 1948, much of the area around the Caney Fork “was subject to intensive family-type farming of money crops, such as corn and tobacco, which involved hillside plowing with mules,” notes the Army Corps of Engineers’ Center Hill Lake Master Plan. However, since the dam’s completion, “farming in the Center Hill Lake area has steadily declined.”

Center Hill Dam under construction on the Caney Fork River in DeKalb County, 1949. (Tennessee State Library Photo Archive)

Local historians and aging residents who lived through the events recall that it was a time of gloom and upheaval for many.

“By the end of 1948, all of the homes and farms were cleared out, torn down and covered with water,” wrote the authors of “Under the Lake,” a 2016 coffee table book of historic images, remembrances and genealogy from the region prior to creation of Center Hill reservoir. “People who had lived there in their lifetime would never be able to see their homes again.”

DeKalb County historian Thomas G. Webb, who wrote a book about local history for the Memphis State University Press that was published in 1986, recalled that by the end of World War II “most of (the inhabitants) had accepted the idea that they had to leave their farms, homes, schools and churches.”

“A few, however, were bitterly opposed to moving and remained in their homes until the dam was completed and the water was literally in their front yards. Some in the Center Hill area relocated in DeKalb County, but many moved to other counties, and the county lost 4,000 people between 1940 and 1950,” Webb reported.

Rosemary Ponte of Cookeville, whose family owned property where today sits the Appalachian Center for Craft, said it pains her even now to recall that “very sad time” when families in DeKalb County were forced off their homelands.

“I still feel bad about it,” said Ponte, who was born in 1931. “They took so much more land than they needed. I just hated to see the people so displaced like that, after generations and generations of their families living there.”

Recreation an Unanticipated Boon

It may seem surprising now, with Center Hill Lake a prominent recreation destination in Middle Tennessee, but leisure and sporting activities weren’t considered important to the dam-project planners.

The Center Hill Lake Master Plan even notes that “recreation was not originally an authorized function of the project” — although surrounding lands were later acquired from property owners and “recreation facilities constructed to assure unencumbered access to the lake for the general public.”

In the beginning, though, they scoffed at the idea of recreation.

“The first few years that Center Hill Lake was backed up after the lake was there, they didn’t even want to talk about recreation,” said Carl Halfacre of Baxter, whose father worked on construction of the dam. “‘If you mentioned recreation to the Corps of Engineers, they would insult you.” They would say, “That dam is for flood control and hydroelectric power — we don’t furnish recreation.’ The Corps didn’t feel it was their job to spend millions of dollars so people could have a good time.”

Nevertheless, by the middle of the 1950s, people did indeed start showing up to fish and boat and swim on Center Hill Lake, said Halfacre, who in 2014 retired from serving as managing ranger at Edgar Evins State Park for nearly two decades. At about that time, picnic areas and campgrounds started popping up, he said.

Webb noted that some who lived in the area in fact began anticipating recreational benefits even before the dam was finished.

“Those who hoped to benefit from the increased tourist trade looked forward to the completion of the dam,” he wrote.

So if you’re one of the more than three million people who annually takes advantage or accesses Center Hill Lake’s vast recreation opportunities, you might do well to spend a moment and reflect on the reality that many people gave up homes and lifeways for the lake to exist — and many would for the rest of their years suffer broken-heartedness and resentment as a result.

“There used to be a lot more life down below the water’s surface — and it was more than just fish,” said Ria Baker, one of the authors of “Under the Lake.”

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Big Wins for White County Wildlands Preservation, Recreation

Conservation carve-outs added to Upper Caney Watershed

The rural lands that make up White County have long been recognized and appreciated for their remarkable geological features and timeless sense of hardy frontier vitality.

Over the last several decades, more and more people from outside the area have come to love and admire White County’s abundance of beauty, wildlife and recreation potential, especially southeast of Sparta, where the Cumberland Plateau fuses with the Highland Rim in the cave-pocked boulder-strewn realm of Virgin Falls.

In his essential 1999 survey of scenic regional hikes and Tennessee cultural heritage, “The Historic Cumberland Plateau; An Explorer’s Guide,” outdoor writer Russ Manning observed, “The unique features of this area are the waterfalls that plunge from great heights and disappear into the ground.”

“Big Laurel Creek flows over Big Branch Falls and farther downstream washes over Big Laurel Falls before disappearing in an underground cave behind the falls. Farther in the wilderness a small creek running out of Sheep Cave cascades 50 or 60 feet until it disappears into a hole in the ground,” wrote Manning. “But the most spectacular is Virgin Falls, which emerges from a cave, runs about 50 feet, drops 110 feet, and disappears into the rocks at the bottom. The water from all these waterfalls apparently runs through the ground, finally draining into the Caney Fork River, which flows through Scott Gulf to the south.”

Courting Conservation-Friendly Commerce

Numerous groups and individuals have devoted time, energy and resources toward shielding the mostly untamed domain from large-scale commercial and residential development, or environmentally destructive industrial land uses.

Groups that have donated time, money, land, labor or expertise toward conserving the Caney Fork watershed include the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, the Open Space Institute, the Land Trust for Tennessee, the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund,  the J.M.Huber Corp., Bridgestone Americas, as well as state parks “friends” groups.

State government also has partnered with private-sector nonprofits and businesses to promote “stewardship of thousands of acres of ecologically significant areas in the Cumberland Plateau with the goals of protection, preservation and public recreation,” said Kim Schofinski, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Improving the public’s access to the many recreational opportunities the rugged lands and moving waters provide will hopefully open navigable pathways toward future economic growth in an area where nagging poverty has for generations presented a snag.

Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau is home to many struggling rural communities that “need sustaining and need to be resilient,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for TDEC’s Bureau of Parks & Conservation.

Inaugural Virgin Falls Thru-Hike Expedition. Pictured at left are those who participated on Sept. 15 in the first organized hike along the newly opened 9-mile Lost Creek to Virgin Falls thru-hike trail. Left to right: Bob Ragland, Michael Faehl, Lisa Faehl, Mark Engler, Ranger Stuart Carroll, Gretchen Weir, Phil Hodge, Greg Geer and TennGreen’s Steven Walsh, who organized the event.

Hill, who formerly served as mayor of neighboring Cumberland County, asserted that “place-based economic development” not only stimulates job creation and small-business growth by drawing in visitors, it “adds a tremendous level to the quality of life for the people who already live here in this area.”

Stuart Carroll, park manager at the Virgins Falls State Natural Area, figures there’s a pretty basic and reliable formula for upping tourist visitation to a place as unique and spectacular as White County’s section of the Cumberland Plateau.

“If you open up access to the public — and provide good parking lots, good trails and good maps — then it will pay dividends to the local economy,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to emulate Cummins Falls (near Cookeville in Jackson County), because that place gets hammered (from overuse), but who could have imagined the spike in sales tax collections they’ve seen in that area because of the added traffic since that park opened?”

Long an advocate for better utilizing the area’s natural potential to lure tourists and snare tourist dollars, Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce president Marvin Bullock noted that “Virgin Falls is already somewhat of a national draw.”

But opportunities for outdoor recreation are now “growing leaps and bounds”, said Bullock. And the area’s adventure-recreation profile will only increase as conservation, trail-building and public-access efforts continue, he predicts.

“It will make it even more of a national draw because there are a lot more beautiful waterfalls up through there,” said Bullock. “There are going to be miles and miles and miles more trails in the future.”

Among the most recent additions is a new section of trail from Lost Creek to Virgin Falls — thus creating a new nine-mile thru-hike and an additional trailhead and parking to access Virgin Falls. The Lost Creek State Natural Area, which was donated for public use by the James Rylander Family, was used as a backdrop in Disney’s 1994 “The Jungle Book.”

Bullock is pleased there’s common agreement that “we are not looking to build a resort park,” or establish other high-impact developments.

“We want to maybe see some wilderness campsites and that type of thing, but nobody wants to see the area built up into something like Fairfield or Lake Tansi in Cumberland County,” Bullock said.

Of course, White County and Sparta businesses are always happy to accommodate daytrippers from those communities who want to come have a magnificent look-see at the dazzling western edge of the plateau, Bullock is quick to add.

Some counties are tempted to develop large wilderness tracts into upscale residential developments in order to increased property tax rolls, said Bullock. White County, by contrast, “gets to have its cake and eat it too — trail development attracts tourists and increases sales tax revenue,” he said.

“Rural, at-risk White County will see increase in revenue, yet the population will still have access to some of their favorite waterfalls and scenic overlooks,” said Bullock.

Communication and Collaboration

More than 100 people with ties or interest in White County conservation efforts gathered Aug. 25 on a fertile grassy plain known as “Big Bottom” along the upper Caney Fork to celebrate some notable recent victories in securing and adding new landscapes to the now nearly 60,000-acre “Mid-Cumberland Wilderness Conservation Corridor.”

Over the summer, properties of 582 acres and 76 acres were formally incorporated into the preservation zone as a result of donors, landowners and various conservation-focused intermediaries working together to acquire the properties.

And back in April, Bridgestone Americas donated all 5,763 acres of its richly forested and biologically diverse Chestnut Mountain property to the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. It contains the highest point of elevation in White County. The donation was part of an innovative and intriguing project to allow the Nature Conservancy to “manage a carbon sequestration project on the property that will offset the carbon emissions of the Bridgestone Tower, the company’s corporate headquarters in downtown Nashville.”

Leaders of conservation groups and state agencies delivered remarks emphasizing a consistent theme during the event — that a vast and ecologically indispensable playground for preservation-minded outdoor enthusiasts is emerging, and the cooperative efforts to bring it into being have been genuinely historic in significance.

Steve Law, director of the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, or TennGreen, said the latest 600-plus acres of land acquired represents “a significant conservation achievement” that will help enhance and protect Caney Fork water quality in perpetuity.

“Geographically, this property joins the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Wildlife Management Area to the west, it adjoins Lost Creek State Natural Area to the north, and is bounded on the south by the Caney Fork River,” said Law. “From the perspective of conservation value, this property increases available migratory habitat for rare species, including the federally endangered Indiana and gray bats.”

Law contends that effective future conservation success efforts will increasingly involve cultivating and maintaining networks of voluntary collaborations among an ever-growing array of interests, individuals and entities.

“Collaboration is a fundamental element to TennGreen’s core mission,” said Law.

TennGreen has for two decades been raising money and working with landowners to acquire and protect tracts that hold or are adjacent to “natural treasures” in Tennessee.

Joel Houser, Chattanooga-based Southeast field coordinator for the Open Space Institute, reiterated the point. “I don’t think we can stress enough the importance of partnerships,” he said.

Houser, whose New York-headquartered organization promotes the preservation of geologically and ecologically unique landscapes across North America, described the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee as “a globally significant place.”

“There are species here that live nowhere else in the world — and there are species that were forced here from the last ice age, and have persisted here ever since,” he said. “There are species here that are disjunct — the populations are disjunct from larger native ranges that may be along the coastal plain or the southern Blue Ridge or further northward at higher elevations.”

In addition to the environmental benefits, Houser said preserving Cumberland wildlands in the 21st Century “will provide recreationists a respite from the modern world, and also provides hunters and their families food.”

“It’s not just for the wildlife, the lichens, the mosses, the flowers and the birds, it is for people, too, and people are a part of the ecosystem — of this ecosystem and all ecosystems,” he said.

Tying It All Together

The growing system of trails in the area is envisioned to one day connect the Virgin Falls State Natural Area with the crown-jewel of Tennessee’s state parks system, Fall Creek Falls, and in the process tie in Scott’s Gulf, Lost Creek, Bledsoe State Forest, Bee Creek and the Boy Scout’s Latimer High Adventure Reservation.

“Linking Lost Creek and Virgin Falls has long been a goal for Tennessee State Parks to provide more recreational opportunities for visitors and protect more critical habitat,” said TDEC’s Hill.

State wildlife resources agency director Ed Carter observed that the area has “one of the highest concentrations of greatest-conservation-need species of anywhere in Tennessee.”

For Stuart Carroll, the Virgin Falls park manager, progress made over the past few years represent a gratifying culmination to his 30-plus year career.

Land-protection endeavors along the Cumberland Plateau date back to the early 1900s, but in the past 20 years the acreage acquired from willing sellers or set voluntarily aside for conservation and recreation has more than doubled, he said.

Efforts by nonprofits and landholding private corporations to preserve properties and open them for public recreation are especially important in the Southeastern United States, where “public land has not historically been a really large part of the landscape,” Carroll said.

“So it is very fulfilling to see the acreage added to the public land base so that people can get out and enjoy the recreation the lands provide — and at the same time we can take care of both the resources and the history for future generations,” he said.

Carroll has himself been instrumental in negotiating a number of key land acquisitions and conservation set-asides, not to mention providing the down-and-dirty hands-on labor required to blaze, build and maintain enjoyably traversable hiking trails. He’s also co-author of a book of trail and landscape reviews called “Hiking Tennessee: A Guide to the State’s Greatest Hiking Adventures.”

The most rewarding aspects of working around places like Fall Creek Falls and Virgin Falls is preserving not just the natural aspects, but also the historical and cultural artifacts that the land holds, said Carroll — and in turn teaching youngsters to appreciate the region’s extraordinary legacy.

“It is great to see so many people pulling together to make these type of projects happen,” he said.

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TN State Parks Cycling Tour Rolling Across Cumberland Plateau

Press Release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Sept. 4, 2018:

NASHVILLE – Hundreds of cyclists from nearly 30 different states will converge on the Cumberland Plateau on Sept. 15-20 for Tennessee State Parks’ annual Bicycle Ride Across Tennessee (BRAT).

The 29th annual ride will wind riders through some of Tennessee’s most scenic and charming communities, including Pikeville, Spencer, McMinnville, Winchester and Lynchburg. Each day will feature loop rides returning to overnight at Fall Creek Falls and Tims Ford State Parks. Riders will pass key attractions along the way including Rock Island State Park, Cumberland Caverns and Jack Daniel’s Distillery.

Bicycle Ride Across Tennessee, or BRAT, is an annual road cycling tour of TN state parks.

“Every year we introduce riders to different state parks and different communities in Tennessee so they can experience how special these places are,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. “For nearly thirty years we have hosted cyclists and their families among the beauty of Tennessee State Parks and this year’s ride won’t disappoint.”

The ride is non-competitive and suitable for a range of skill levels. Riders can register for a one, two, three or six-day ride through Sept. 9. Registration begins at $85 for a one-day trip and $510 for the full 380-mile trip. The fee includes a fully supported route, camping at two state park basecamps, hot showers, meals (breakfast and supper), live entertainment and interpretive programming as well as an event t-shirt. Cabin and RV campground lodging is also available for an additional fee.

The BRAT is sponsored by Tennessee State Parks and benefits the Tennessee Park Rangers Association, the Cumberland Trail State Scenic Trail, Fall Creek Falls State Park and Tims Ford State Park.

More information on the ride, including a map of the route and registration instructions, can be found at www.thebrat.org.

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Revenue from TN Tourism Continues to Grow

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE UPPER CUMBERLAND TOURISM ASSOCIATION, AUGUST 28, 2018:

Level of visitor spending in Upper Cumberland climbs to all-time high

Nashville – Gov. Bill Haslam and Department of Tourist Development Commissioner Kevin Triplett announced today Tennessee tourism’s direct domestic and international travel expenditures reached a new all-time record high of $20.7 billion in 2017, up 6.3 percent over the previous year, as reported by the U.S. Travel Association. The announcement was made at the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.

For the 12th consecutive year, tourism topped $1 billion in state and local sales tax revenue, reaching $1.8 billion. That marks a 7.6 percent increase over 2016, higher than the national growth of travel related state tax revenues of 4.6 percent. Tourism also generated 184,300 jobs for Tennesseans, a 3.1 percent growth year over year.

The 2017 direct domestic and international travel expenditure for the Upper Cumberland region reached an all time high of $420.9 Mil. Overall the 14 counties in the Upper Cumberland saw a 6.3% increase in their tourism spending. Two of our counties see more than $100 Million – Putnam – $132.03 Mil and Cumberland – $121.54 Mil.

Chambers of Commerce in the smaller UC counties operate on very limited budgets and they cooperate with all the 14 counties and the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association on joint promotions.

“It is important to understand that travel & tourism creates jobs, drives economic growth and helps build better societies. The Upper Cumberland of Tennessee is a prime example of this, as our region and its natural beauty is expected to attract more tourists in the coming years” said Ruth Dyal, director of the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association. It will be vital for Upper Cumberland communities and private sectors to work together with the public to ensure that tourism growth is sustainable, inclusive and benefits everyone.”

Commissioner Kevin Triplett said. “The authenticity and Southern hospitality from our communities and partners gives visitors an unbeatable experience and inspires them to return. The numbers show Tennessee is a destination of choice for visitors around the world. However, we would not have these numbers if not for the capital investments, renovations and dedication made by tourism partners across the state to deliver great experiences that create wonderful memories.”

To view the full report, click here. For more information, contact Ruth Dyal, executive director for the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association at 931-537-6347 or by email at uctourism@gmail.com.

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Rolley Hole Marbles Championship Tourney Set for Sept. 15

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, August 28, 2018:

36th annual event draws country’s best players to Tennessee state park

HILHAM – Standing Stone State Park will host the National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship and Festival on Saturday, Sept. 15, drawing some of the country’s best players to Tennessee where they will match wit and skills in what is known as the ‘Super Bowl of marbles’. In its 36th year, the event will feature world-class marble competitions, live music, marble-making exhibits and demonstrations, food vendors and much more.

“Standing Stone is the only state park in the nation with a marble yard, mainly due to the fact that some of the best players hail from Tennessee’s Clay County,” said Park Ranger Shawn Hughes. “The Championship is the most challenging marble tournament, where only the finest players dare to compete. It’s been a great event for the park and the local community, as it’s the only one of its kind in the world.”

Co-hosted by the Friends of Standing Stone State Park, the free festival will kick off at 8 a.m. Registration is required to compete in the marble tournament and closes on Sept. 5.

The musical lineup includes bluegrass and old-time groups Bill and the Belles, Clearview Bluegrass, Kentucky Just Us, Leonard Anderson, Phillip Steinmetz & His Sunny Tennesseans, Uncle Shuffelo & His Haint Hollow Hootenanny, and the Volunteer Statesman. 2018 event sponsors include Honest Abe Log Homes, Tennessee Arts Commission, Union Bank & Trust Company, Charlie’s Woodshop, Woodmen of the World, The Building Center, Southern Landscape Supply, and Twin Lakes Petroleum.

Rolley Hole is a folk game similar to croquet. It will be played by the rules of the National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship, on a dirt yard which measures 40 x 25 feet. The strategy comes by determining the best way to keep opponents from making the hole, which often requires skillful hard shots against their marbles, sending them ricocheting across the yard.

Standing Stone State Park is located 10 miles north of Livingston, Tenn., just off of Highway 52 near Celina and covers nearly 1,000 acres on the Cumberland Plateau of north-central Tennessee. For more information about the festival and Standing Stone State Park, contact (931) 823-6347 or visit https://tnstateparks.com/parks/standing-stone.

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Fall Creek Falls Hotel Demo Delayed

Shuttered lodge complex still scheduled for razing by end of year

The anticipated date for demolition to commence on the old inn at Fall Creek Falls State Park has been pushed back to at least the end of this month, according to state officials overseeing the project.

The plan had been for crews to start dismantling the 1970s-era hotel and conference complex by next week. But word now is that, because “contract negotiations took a little longer than expected,” the project won’t begin until the end of this month.

A spokesman for Tennessee’s Department of General Services said this week that work teams will likely begin removing the old hotel’s interior by the beginning of September, a process that should take about three weeks. When that’s complete, they’ll start tearing the buildings down.

“At present we expect it will take a little less than two months to tear down the structure, haul off materials, and secure the site,” Dave Roberson, director of communications for the department, wrote in an email to Center Hill Sun.

Roberson said the Brentwood-based company Bell and Associates Construction is handling the project.

The state’s plan is to build a new hotel and open it sometime in 2020.

The total cost of the project is expected to run close to $30 million. The old lodge ceased functioning in April.

Fall Creek Falls Park Manager Jacob Young said there’s been a noticeable falloff in visitation to the park since the inn and restaurant shut down, especially during weekdays. He said staff are expecting the typically busy autumn to fade into winter off-season faster than normal as a result as well.

Check back with Center Hill Sun for updates.

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Big Fun on Small Town’s Barren Fork

Cool respite from stuffy summer doldrums; Backwoods-style river adventures inside McMinnville city limits

Set amidst a remarkable panorama of thickset woods, rolling pasturelands, rugged mountain slopes and soaring yonder plateau scarps, McMinnville has for two centuries served as a regional hub of commerce, culture and active leisure.

Writing for the intro to the 2009 “Images of America Series” photography book celebrating the town’s bicentennial, authors Monty Clell Wanamaker and Chris Keathley described how “the sheer exceptional beauty of the ancient and mystical mountains and forests with their spiritual attributes” mesmerized early 19th Century travelers and settlers in what is now Warren County.

So too did “the numerous rivers and streams overflowing with fresh water” that twisted down valleys and cut through the land.

“It was that beauty and grandeur of the region that enthralled the area’s first white settlers,” wrote Keathley and Wanamaker, who passed away at the age of 79 in January. “It would draw to its wilderness many anxious, industrious and learned men who had come to build their homes and lives. And so it was that McMinnville came into being.”

You could say the area has always attracted people who appreciate exploration and seek adventure.

Mickey Heath at Smooth Rapids

So in 2012 when four hometown buddies who grew up together decided to start up a kayak-rental and shuttle service to help introduce visitors and locals alike to the aesthetically fertile Barren Fork and Collins Rivers, they were actually on pretty solid ground historically.

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boathouse

Early on, they really didn’t envision their enterprise evolving into a full-service launchpad and laid-back landing zone for paddle sport river recreation. It started off just a side hustle from the back of a pickup.

“We bought some boats and were renting them out of our truck — when we’d make a little money we would invest it back in the company,” said Mickey Heath, who along with Michael Lockhart and brothers Jimmy and Todd Barker founded the company that came to be Smooth Rapids.

Located just a few blocks from Main Street McMinnville and the town square on a formerly rundown piece of backstreet river-bottom residential property, today Smooth Rapids is a buzzing restaurant, campground and outdoor music venue.

These days, renting 100-150 boats makes for a pretty good weekend, Heath said, adding, “If you were to tell me that six years ago, I would have said you were crazy.”

Smooth Rapids Outfitters sits on the banks of the Barren Fork River, which gathers from a web of runoff veins in western Warren County. It flows eastward for 23 or so serpentine miles before meeting the Collins River, a tributary of the Caney Fork, just east of McMinnville. The Barren Fork’s lower eight miles shape a lovely and languid course through and then around the edge of town.

Smooth Rapids is aptly named. The lower Barren Fork’s mostly unhurried currents make for typically mellow paddling, requiring only elementary navigation maneuvers.

“This is not whitewater kayaking. It’s more lazy river floating — that’s what the rivers around here are like,” said Heath.

The beauty is hypnotic, though, somehow enhanced by the knowledge you’re floating near a population center, which is often easy to forget as scenes of secluded sylvan riverscape float placidly by.

Learning to Love to Float

Because of the Barren Fork’s gentle descent grade, beginners of all ages can get the hang of handling a kayak in short and safe order.

Smooth Rapids puts a special emphasis on hosting and organizing floats for kids. Getting youngsters out on the water, piloting their own boat, can be a highly enjoyable confidence-building experience they’ll long remember and draw on.

Heath said all the Smooth Rapids crew tend to “love pretty much everything to do with the outdoors.” So introducing kids to the river who may never have had an opportunity to paddle before is exceptionally rewarding, he said, especially if they’re from more urbanized areas or at-risk backgrounds and maybe don’t often get the opportunity to get out and genuinely encounter nature.

As for the food-serving side of the business, Heath said the river “feeds our restaurant.”

Their decision to open a restaurant was based on straightforward and consistent observations made though firsthand market analysis. “When people get off the water, they are typically hungry. When they get here, they are ready to eat,” Heath said.

The moving-waters theme is apparent on the Smooth Rapids restaurant menu, where you can dive into a fleet of appetizers and craft brews. The entrée list contains a boatload of chicken baskets and sandwiches with names like the River Monster, the Riviera, the Daytripper and the Barren Fork Burger.

Confluence of Commerce and Recreation

In addition to their aim of luring people into a lifelong paddling habit, Smooth Rapids is seeking to promote greater visitation to the region by hosting festive outdoor events like the Aug. 3-5 reggae festival and the Sept. 22 McMinnville Mountain Crawl, an annual endurance-testing “adventure race” consisting of caving, biking, and kayaking around the vicinity.

Heath said he’s big believer in the idea that the rising tide of Warren County tourism commerce will ultimately lift more than just Smooth Rapids’ boats. All McMinnville profits from raising the area’s profile for dynamic outdoor-recreation potential, so it behooves local businesses to work together to make everybody’s visit a memorable one, he said.

“We really consider ourselves partners with the other restaurants in town — we don’t look at them as competition,” he said. “We all work together, because if somebody is going to come into town, maybe like to take in a show at Cumberland Caverns, then they may go to Collins River BBQ on Friday night and then come eat with us on Saturday night and then go to another restaurant on Sunday afternoon. This is what you want, everybody working together to keep that out-of-town traffic in the community having fun and spending money.”

To get in touch with Smooth Rapids, call 931-452-9251 or visit online at smoothrapids.com.

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Design for New Inn at Fall Creek Falls Unveiled

State aiming for August demolition

The public has gotten a first glance at what the proposed new hotel at Fall Creek Falls State Park is supposed to look like when it’s completed.

Architectural renderings of the new facility were released this summer by the agency that oversees state parks management.

The new inn is intended to summon a more hospitable ambience than the old, which was built back in the early 1970s in a sullen, concrete-gray style known as “Brutalism.” Reminiscent of mid-20th Century Soviet-bloc architecture, the old hotel emitted a distinctly drab spirit. A recurring observation was that it more resembled something like a psychiatric hospital or penal institution than a congenial lakeside retreat befitting the sublime character of Tennessee’s most popular state park.

Lodged Where?

The design drawings for the new inn envisage the new structure integrated more harmoniously into the wooded, water’s edge habitat on the gently sloping banks of Fall Creek Lake.

The facades on the new 95,000-square foot inn will consist of “timber framing, stonework details and extended height windows,” which will complement “the natural setting of the park,” according to a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation press release from June 21.

The finished lodge will have three floors and contain “various indoor and outdoor gathering areas including larger meeting and conference space.” The grounds will include “paths connecting the facility to existing recreational trails.”

Construction is anticipated to begin later this year and finish by the summer of 2020.

The new restaurant will serve up an expansive vista of Fall Creek Lake, and guests can dine on a scenic terrace overlooking the water if they chose. The building will also include a bar and lounge area, as well as banquet spaces to facilitate conferences and group retreats.

“The inn is designed to provide spacious views of the lake and of the park’s natural forest that will evoke long-lasting memories for visitors,” said an executive from Earl Swensson Associates, a Nashville-based firm overseeing the project.

But first there’s the matter of demolishing the old building, which although it closed for good on April 1, is still standing as of this writing.

“Right now the schedule calls for demolition to begin August 15, and to be complete by October 31,” David Roberson, spokesman for Tennessee’s Department of General Services, said in a July 10 email.

“The Fall Creek Falls project, which includes demolition of the existing inn, has been in the planning and design phase since May,” he wrote. “A contract for the project is now being finalized, and once it is signed the general contractor will hire various subcontractors, which will include a subcontractor to handle the demolition.”

“Since the contract is not complete yet, we don’t know final cost, nor the cost of the various elements of the contract, such as the demolition,” Roberson added.

Costs Climbing

The total estimated price tag of the demolition-and-rebuild project is now $29.4 million. However, that number has been trending upwards over the past couple years since the Haslam administration first announced plans to tear down and replace the old hotel.

Initial projections called for spending $20-$22 million on the project. Last year the figure was revised to $25 million. The latest, nearly $30 million price tag, was put forward by TDEC in the spring.

“The estimated overall cost of the inn project, which has been in the works for nearly three years, has varied over the course of that time based on a variety of circumstances and variables,” TDEC communications director Eric Ward wrote in an email to Center Hill Sun.

The Haslam administration’s initial proposal was to outsource the new facility’s operations to an outside concessionaire, an idea that drew vocal opposition both locally and in the Tennessee Legislature. But the idea only fell fully flat when in 2017 not a single company offered a bid on running the new hotel and conference center.

Gone for now are both the outsourcing proposal and any expectation that the state will get help footing front-end design and development costs on the new facility.

Ward said “the project was originally part of a potential concessionaire agreement, where a private concessionaire would have theoretically shouldered some of the cost, thereby reducing the cost to the taxpayer.”

“Other factors that have influenced the estimated cost over time include inflation and the cost of demolition and construction materials,” the TDEC spokesman added.

Local Economic Benefits Anticipated

The state has forecast the new inn, restaurant and conference center will generate $278,000 annually in local taxes, which is $90,000 a year more than the old facility.

“In the short term, construction activity will bring an estimated $14.7 million in construction-related taxable spending to the area along with more than 100 construction jobs,” according to TDEC’s June 21 news release.

The 26,000-acre Fall Creek Falls park straddles Van Buren and Bledsoe Counties, both of which are considered economically “distressed” by state and federal agencies.

TDEC officials say the old hotel was running occupancy rates below 40 percent. The average hotel occupancy-rate nationally was 65.9 percent in 2017, according to industry estimates used by the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association. In the Southeastern United States, the 2016 average was 61.4 percent and in Tennessee it was 64.5 percent.

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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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Register Now for 2018 Guided Waterfall and Wildflower Tours

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, March 20, 2018:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee State Parks is offering vacation packages that take visitors on guided tours through some of the state’s most scenic waterfalls, swimming holes and wildflower trails.

Spring, summer and fall tours will take participants through Tennessee’s Highland Rim and Cumberland Plateau, an area nationally-known for its cascades, gorges, rock houses and waterfalls. Tours include folklore and history shared by State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath and Park Ranger Cara Alexander, educational and interpretive programs unique to each location, meals and transportation.

Specific tours offered in 2018 are:

  • Waterfalls & Wildflowers Photography Workshop & Tour: April 13-15; locations include Cumberland Mountain State Park, Ozone Falls, Piney Falls and the Head of the Sequatchie; led by published Nature Photographer Byron Jorjorian.
  • Spring Waterfall Tour: April 27-29; locations include Cumberland Mountain State Park, Fall Creek Falls State Park, Ozone Falls, Piney Falls and Lost Creek Falls.
  • Summer Swimming Hole Tour: July 16-18; locations include Edgar Evins State Park, Rock Island State Park, South Cumberland State Park and Cummins Falls State Park.
  • October Waterfall Tour: October 1-3; locations include Cumberland Mountain State Park, Burgess Falls State Park, Colditz Cove State Natural Area, Cummins Falls State Park, Frozen Head State Park and Rock Island State Park.
  • November Waterfall Tour: Nov. 14-16; locations include Cumberland Mountain State Park, Fall Creek Falls State Park, Ozone Falls, Piney Falls and Lost Creek Falls.

All tours are $350/person and include meals, taxes, gratuities, interpretive programming and transportation. Onsite lodging, including camping or cabins, is available at an additional cost.

Complete itineraries and registration information can be found at https://tnstateparks.com/about/tennessee-state-parks-vacation-packages.