published Friday, March 27th, 2009

Chattanooga: It comes naturally


by Amy Williams
  • photo
    Staff Photo by D. Patrick Harding
    Workers put the finishing touches on the awning over the entrance of the new Chattanooga Outdoor Center at Coolidge Park. The new center is opening to the public this weekend.

As a wholesale distributor in 10 states for North Face apparel and equipment, John Fellers could live anywhere in the South.

But the 36-year-old outdoor enthusiast says Chattanooga is ideal for his lifestyle and his business.

“Chattanooga is probably the best overall location in the Southeast for rock climbing, backpacking, caving and kayaking,” said Mr. Fellers, owner of the First Ascent Sales Team. “Within 15 minutes of downtown Chattanooga, you can be on rock, on water or on a trail.”

City leaders eager to capitalize on such outdoor attractions created Outdoor Chattanooga five years ago to help recruit more visitors, residents and businesses to the area and to promote a healthier lifestyle for those already here. On Saturday, the city agency moves from a crammed office on Market Street into a new, more-visible home in the midst of Chattanooga’s busiest park.

The new Outdoor Chattanooga center in Coolidge Park will serve as a showcase for the diverse array of outdoor activities in the region capable of serving much of America’s growing $730 billion-a-year outdoor industry.

The 6,000-square-foot facility fulfills a dream of former Mayor Bob Corker, who formed Outdoor Chattanooga in 2004 after convening hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts to help focus the community on organizing events and activities for both residents and visitors.

“boulder visions”

Mr. Corker, now a U.S. senator from Tennessee, touts his hometown as “the Boulder of the East” in reference to the Colorado town’s success in luring outdoor enthusiasts and entrepreneurs.

Mayor Ron Littlefield, whose son once lived in Boulder, is even bolder in his claims about Chattanooga.

“I truly believe our green mountains and wonderful waterways are unmatched in the West,” Mr. Littlefield said. “I think maybe Boulder should strive to be ‘the Chattanooga of the West.’”

Susan Graf, president of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, said she is glad more cities are looking to outdoors for their appeal. But she insists Boulder, which is home to the Outdoor Industry Association and numerous outdoor-related businesses, still outdraws other cities with its natural attractions.

“Chattanooga may be a great city, but Boulder is the mecca for outdoor enthusiasts,” she said. “We continue to draw many educated people in the so-called ‘creative class’ who are looking for the kind of lifestyle we offer.”

Boulder has helped prove that outdoor activities are more than just playtime for the local economy. Those attracted to Boulder for its rock climbing, hiking and cycling activities tend to be higher educated, Ms. Graf said.

The growing outdoor industry and the creative entrepreneurs drawn to the mountainous community have helped keep unemployment in Boulder nearly one-third below the comparable U.S. rate, she said.

The January jobless rate in metropolitan Boulder was 5.8 percent, not adjusted for seasonal factors. By comparison, the unadjusted unemployment rate in January was 8.5 percent nationwide and 8.1 percent in metro Chattanooga.

natural appeal

Chattanooga is naturally suited for many of the fastest-growing sports in America. Despite the recession — or perhaps because of it — the Outdoor Industry Association estimates the number of young adults involved in rock climbing, backpacking, kayaking, bicycling and hiking all grew by double-digit levels during 2008 over the previous year.

Outdoor industry sales last year posted a healthy 9.6 percent jump, while most other retail sales remained flat.

As a riverfront city nestled in the southern Appalachian mountains, Chattanooga’s greenways, parks and nearby national forests offer opportunities for many outdoor activities.

Such attractions helped convince Dan Miller to leave his native Grand Rapids, Mich., five years ago to come to Chattanooga after previously living in Asheville, N.C.

“Chattanooga has more opportunities and is less expensive than Asheville and doesn’t have the severe winters of Michigan,” the 31-year-old sales manager for the local North Face distributor. “I just got engaged to a woman from Chattanooga so I hope this is my home for a long time.”

Jim Markley, owner of the Goodhew sock company and a former co-owner of Smartwool, another socks and apparel maker, said Chattanooga has some of the best rock climbing anywhere.

“If you look at the surrounding area, it sort of reminds me of Seattle,” he said. “If you go up to Bluff View at sunset, it has such a beautiful view.”

Biking enthusiasts insist Chattanooga is positioned to attract even more bicycle events. The city already sponsors the annual Three States, Three Mountains biking event in May, which draws 2,500 competitors.

“They camp here; they may go to the local night spots downtown, and that all helps our economy,” said Jeffrey Schaarschmidt, an attorney and president of the mountain biking club SORBA-Chattanooga.

healthier people, economy

Matt Sims, a 37-year-old sales representative for Patagonia Inc., said such events help not only bring people and businesses to town. They help encourage many video game-dependent youths and adults to get outside and be more active.

“I think Chattanoogans want to live right to do the right thing,” he said. “I grew up here living like I live out in the middle of the woods.”

Rob Healy, the original director of Outdoor Chattanooga who later headed Chattanooga’s Parks and Recreation Department, said promoting outdoor activities can boost both tourism and fitness for the community.

“We have a tremendous potential here with all of the natural amenities of this area to bring more events here and to encourage more people to go outside and play,” he said.

Theresa Bowman is among those who joined Outdoor Chattanooga’s Bike to Lunch program last year and rediscovered the joy of cycling.

“It was a lot of fun riding with other bikers to Coolidge Park and back,” she said. “I got so caught up in it that my husband and I bought some bikes of our own.”

Mr. Littlefield said he believes the proximity of downtown to nearby undeveloped scenic areas helped convince Volkswagen to pick Chattanooga for its $1 billion auto assembly plant.

“We were flying in a TVA helicopter and as we flew over Raccoon Mountain and into the Tennessee River Gorge, you could literally hear our German guests gasp at how quickly we went from a developed downtown to a gorgeous natural canyon,” Mr. Littlefield recalled.

After viewing the sight below, Mr. Littlefield heard VW’s Frank Fischer say, “This is the place.”

  • New home for Outdoor Chattanooga
    Outdoor Chattanooga will move into a newly renovated 6,000 square-foot building at Coolidge Park. The LEED-certified building will have an 8x40-foot climbing wall, classrooms and conference rooms.
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