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DMRA disappointed that new law is not helpful to county or city

The members of the board for the Doe Mountain Recreation Authority (DMRA) finally got some answers last Tuesday concerning the controversial new Adventure Tourism legislation that the state has been tweaking over the past couple of years. Intended to provide tax incentives to qualifying businesses located in a designated Adventure Tourism District, the law has been touted as a game changer in local economic development. However, the board discovered that in reality the law would likely have very little if any positive impact on either Mountain City or Johnson County.
City Mayor Lawrence Keeble in particular has been keeping an eye on the bill especially over the past 14 months. State officials have been largely silent on actual details concerning the law, citing the many unknown factors associated with potential additions and amendments. However many of those question marks became clear at this month’s meeting as newly appointed board member Matt Garland, representing the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD), officially took his seat for the first time.
Replacing Alicia Summers who moved on to a new position, Garland was able to answer just about all of the board’s questions, though much of the news was far from good. While the original perception of an Adventure Tourism District held by most DMRA members was of a broad designated area covering a specific zone such as Mountain City’s business district, Garland explained that the law actually works on a much smaller scale, often covering only a single already existing qualified business, or a specific target area where such as business will locate.
In fact, if a district were to be created over vacant space then the county or city could only allow qualifying adventure tourism businesses to locate there or risk forfeiting the tax incentives altogether. This is particularly problematic in an economy where any new development is essential, regardless of whether or not it specifically facilitates one of the state’s listed adventure tourism activities.
Making things worse, even if the city or county did designate an Adventure Tourism District and set it aside for that sole purpose, businesses within its boundaries would still need to meet the state’s minimum qualifications which require at least 13 full time employees who work year round and receive benefits. Additionally, the business would also have to generate an equivalent investment of at least $500,000 within a 36-month window. These huge challenges aside, both County Mayor Larry Potter and City Mayor Lawrence Keeble confirmed that the state has sent out an email explaining that any government interested in developing a district would need to apply by April 15th, a very narrow deadline by any measure.
Bearing in mind that the law may still change in the future if this initial form doesn’t have much success, most board members agreed that as it stands there isn’t any real benefit to a small rural area like Johnson County or Mountain City. Of course, the adventure tourism law had been one of the key focus points for the DMRA’s marketing and outreach committee which will now likely move toward other projects such as various fund raisers and ideas to generate revenue.
That major issue aside, the rest of the meeting was largely varied and relatively short by DMRA standards. Roads and Trails Committee Chairman Mike Farmer gave an in depth report of recent developments, including an update that prospective bike trails near the Harbin Hill entrance have been flagged and mapped out and cleared with officials from the Department of Environment and Conservation. The hope is that volunteers from a couple of major neighboring organizations will be able to build the first leg of an eventual flow trail system that could be funded through a sizeable Bell Helmets grant.
One of the last hold ups is to have the specific site reviewed by Dr. Frosty Levy from East Tennessee State University, who has been working with a graduate student to conduct a floristic study of the mountain and has identified areas that may need to be protected or preserved from an environmental perspective. Levy’s work is funded through grants and is only partially complete, but there will likely be much more field work conducted in the near future.
Also during his report, Mike Farmer introduced the board to another potential grant source, this time to begin the initial steps toward restoring the Kettlefoot Fire Tower at the top of the mountain. Funded through the Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA), the $500 grant could be used for structural review and basic repairs. Of course the task of fully restoring the tower will take extensive time and further financial assistance, but the FFLA also maintains an online database that helps lay out the first steps for a potential designation as an historic site. Feeling that this would be a strong move in the right direction, Mayor Lawrence Keeble made the motion to approve the grant application, which was seconded by TWRA’s John Gregory and passed unanimously.
Keeble also spoke as chair of the board’s hunting and shooting committee, who have been meeting recently and have come up with three recommendations to be made to the full board. First, the committee recommended that this fall hunting should be allowed on Doe Mountain following all TWRA rules and regulations, unless something major changes in the meantime. Citing successful similar policies in various parks and management areas around the state, the committee did acknowledge that there would need to be more in depth discussion about allowing high powered rifles and requirements for users to wear blaze orange, but also pointed out that hunting has already been an ongoing unofficial activity on the mountain for years.
The remaining two recommendations involved potential future shooting ranges, with the committee looking at both the possibility of a Doe Mountain range off of Highway 67 as well as an effort to re-open the former Cross Mountain Range with the support of the forest service. Gregory was particularly supportive of the range ideas, noting that the TWRA may even be able to help with such a project, though more research would need to be done to scope out the potential site and determine exactly what kind of range would be recommended.
Shooting ranges are becoming increasingly popular, and there are even sport shooting teams being developed in local high schools such as Greene County. Gregory indicated that this may be a possibility in Johnson County’s future, once appropriate planning had been done. For his part, Mayor Keeble is hoping to get something open soon, even if it is a simple development to begin with.
As recommendations only, no action was taken but there was a general consensus that all three issues will be addressed in depth once other factors come into play such as the forthcoming liability protection provided by the state’s claims service. Mona Alderson, the DMRA attorney, did give an update on this ongoing problem as well, explaining that the coverage will likely cost the board around $4,000 annually. This cost was factored into the board’s budgetary discussion, which also brought up an estimated $3,000 for auditing fees. Additionally an extra $1,000 was recommended to be set aside for printing and office supplies.
Other budgets beyond the administration aspect were submitted from the board’s various committees and will all be compiled into the overall DMRA budget. Already sales of user passes have generated more than $20,000 with more and more users coming in every weekend. In that regard, Alderson did point out that the board needs to consider extra signage at the Harbin Hill entrance to help guide parking as well as to indicate what trails are currently closed to access. Further, Alderson noted that designated park managers do occasionally need to be able to make small purchases for emergency needs and minor maintenance. To alleviate these issues to board approved up to $5,000 that could be spent though the end of the fiscal year.
With money now starting to come in the board has been keeping very sound records of every transaction, but this did lead Mayor Lawrence Keeble to point out that because of this a significant amount of extra work has been placed on Sally Tugman in Mayor Potter’s office. To help, at least in the short term, there have been efforts to try and secure the aid of an intern from ETSU, but Keeble did want to make the board aware of Ms. Tugman’s ongoing efforts, especially with the increasing demand.
There was also discussion brought up by Mona Alderson concerning the possibility of bringing concessions to the Harbin Hill Visitor’s Center, possibly by allowing non-profit organizations such as a church, fire department, or school group to set up as a fundraiser on specified dates. This would provide food and snacks to hungry ATV and OHV users and could be a great way to generate good will with the community. Discussion of specific details, such as scheduling, length of the concession season, advertising, etc. will need to be addressed first, but there was a general sense of support from the board.
Finally, secretary Gabby Lynch explained to the board that there is the possibility of another grant application with the Tennessee Healthy Watershed Initiative, the same organization that already funded hydrology studies on the mountain. Asking authority to explore a grant application farther, a motion was made by Ray Stout to approve Lynch’s request along with a review by Alderson. Wrapping up in just under two hours, it was one of the shortest DMRA board meetings to date, but the board still accomplished a great deal of work. The next scheduled meeting will be on April 1st, at the First Tennessee Development District in Johnson City.