In the center of Johnson County, Doe Mountain Recreation Area represents an interesting flavor of state and local partnership. The 8,600-acre recreation area dropped off the property tax rolls after being created in 2013, hoping that tourism-related business would create a net gain for the region over time.
Johnson County Assessor of Tax, Matthew Lewis, recalls the discussions on whether the risk was worth the potential reward. He says, “There have been some spinoffs from Doe Mountain that are paying commercial taxes, including real property tax at the higher rate.” He expects to see more as the park matures and businesses expand beyond the commercial campgrounds that have figured prominently in recent growth.
Short-term rental options, ranging from cabins and lodges to single rooms, are increasing. So too are food trucks, rideshare services, and restaurants.
According to the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, tourism impact climbed over the four years ending with 2020. Johnson County rose from 71st out of 95 Tennessee counties to 60th in travel spending. Where most of Tennessee saw declines in 2020, Johnson and Carter were two of only fifteen counties showing positive gains in tourism.
The real estate sector has benefitted as more people explore telecommuting options, with a zest for country living and choose to move to Johnson County. Lewis mentioned a large tract that was no longer actively farmed was recently split into multiple one and five-acre lots. “We’re seeing new houses being built,” he said. Those will add to residential real property tax revenues for many years into the future.
“The tax base will be better next year,” Lewis added. “We will have an increase. The demographics are changing. Some are coming in wanting to farm and not making many changes to their property. Others are building and dividing up properties. Some of those want to be self-sustaining and we’ve had some properties put back into farming.”
All this, of course, is not without challenges.
“I have some fear about supply chain disruptions and how that might affect people finishing building their house,” Lewis added. That impacts tax revenue. A changing business environment however is benefitting our rural community. There are great economic development opportunities ahead.”
Out of view in the distance across Doe Mountain, county officials hope to soon see progress on yet another economic development strategy. The U.S. Forest Service’s Sink Mountain Boat Ramp has been off the tax rolls longer than many residents can remember. It is hoped that facility on Watauga Lake will help encourage longer vacation stays once the federal government finally makes repairs and reopens access. By hedging the bets and creating an environment conducive to a variety of businesses, Johnson County enters 2022 with much brighter prospects than many other rural communities across Appalachia.