Staff photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Shane Webb, with SUP Paddleboards, demonstrates his watercraft on the Tennessee River during the 4th annual Outdoor Expo and Rock/Creek Gear Swap in Coolidge Park on Saturday.
Outdoor opportunities, high-adventure thrills and green enterprises have transformed Chattanooga into a regional powerhouse for businesses that cater to the recreation set, entrepreneurs say.
Mark McKnight, head of marketing for specialty outdoor retailer Rock/Creek, said consumers and businessmen alike keep flocking to Chattanooga because it’s “really a paradise for people who enjoy being outside.”
He said the city’s central location helps with transporting business goods and tourist access.
“I think we’re in the growth stage right now,” McKnight said. “We just have unique environment and geology, period, and we’ve managed to keep it that way.”
In addition to geology, Chattanooga benefits from its geography, with river, road and rail access linking it to distribution centers nationwide.
Rock/Creek, founded in the mid-20th century as Canoeist Headquarters, started to grow more rapidly when co-owners Dawson Wheeler and Marvin Webb discovered they could ship products to the Eastern Seaboard faster than their Colorado and California competitors, McKnight said.
Increased exposure to Chattanooga products got customers all over the country to start paying attention.
“There’s a growing national recognition of what we’re doing here,” McKnight said.
The outdoor recreation industry’s impact in Tennessee:
* $6.3 billion to the state’s economy
* 67,000 jobs
* $297 million in tax revenue
Source: Outdoor Industry Foundation
To mark the city’s outdoor lifestyle, Chattanooga will put on RiverRocks, a 10-day outdoor festival that begins on Oct. 1. River Rocks will feature over 40 outdoor events such as rock climbing, trail running, kayacking, rowing, cycling, off-road biking, hiking, and hang gliding, according to organizers, as well as live music, river cruises and even hot air balloons.
“Chattanooga is one of the top destinations for outdoor recreation,” said event founder Mike McGauley.
But positioning the city to be a success in the outdoor business arena was not an overnight project, nor was it easy.
“It was kind of a series of small steps,” McKnight said. “Instead of one big thing, it was a thousand little things.”
According to the World Resources Institute, Chattanooga’s pollution in the 1960s and 1970s was so bad that “drivers had to turn their lights on in the middle of the day, and the mountain ridges often could not be seen from the city below.”
Community groups, business leaders and government officials rallied to bring the city into compliance with the 1970 Clean Air Act, and efforts to preserve the area’s unique natural appeal continue today, according to Mac McGee, nine-year owner of Choo Choo Fly Fishing.
A Chattanooga native and avid fisherman, he’s watched firsthand as the city discarded its Rust Belt roots for a greener, cleaner environment since he bought the store, which was founded in 1977.
“Twenty years ago, you didn’t have people discussing how to create more quality trout fishing sections on our local rivers. Now we have delayed-harvest sections on two of the rivers” that help protect species from overfishing, he said.
The increased business from the cleaner environment has helped to offset the economic downturn’s pressure on his business, McGee added.
Fishing’s sister sport — hunting — has not done as well recently, said Mike Stewart, owner of Feather & Fly Sporting Traditions, though fishing remains the “fastest growing participatory sport with women.”
“Fly fishing is rapidly growing, but hunting is slowing down,” Stewart said. “Deer hunting has taken a hit because it’s become so expensive to hunt.”
He now sells 65 percent of his safari and big game guns online to make up for the lack of business locally.
“Online, we have a reputation of being one of the top fine gun dealers in the country,” Stewart said.
Chattanooga’s emergence as a force in traditional outdoor sports has given rise to several smaller companies which have arisen to compete in profitable niche markets.
Lynskey Performance Designs, founded in 2006, constructs titanium bicycles for high-stress mountain biking, building them by hand for customers who need the best, according to co-owner Mark Lynskey.
Lynskey exports roughly 90 percent of his titanium bikes around the world through a network of international distributors, he said. That’s thanks to customer interaction expert Don Erwin, who pioneered the use of advanced software to “track every interaction with each customer,” Lynskey said.
Another arrival is standup paddleboard dealer Michael Phillips. He sells what appear to be large surfboards on his online store, SUP Paddleboard. But the boards are actually designed for users to stand on them while using a paddle for propulsion in the water.
After starting his company in 2007, he said he has seen standup paddleboarding grow so much that “it’s now the fastest growing sport in the watersports segment that there is.”
The RiverRocks festival will feature the first official standup paddleboard races in the city, and Phillips is confident that the increased interest will translate into increased sales.
“Anywhere there’s water in Chattanooga, and there’s plenty, you can stop at any boat ramp and start paddling,” Phillips said.
High-thrills outdoor recreation is also growing in popularity.
For nature lovers who want to experience the outdoors hurdling through the trees wearing a harness attached to a wire, The Adventure Guild is “your full-service adventure company,” said co-owner Don Stock.
Stock’s firm is best known for operating the climbing wall under Walnut Street Bridge and for building a zipline at Ruby Falls. However, the company also runs a successful business installing everything from ropes courses to canopy tours around the country, he said.
“Business is going crazy. We are trying to keep up with everything,” Stock said.
He said locating the company in Chattanooga was a “very strategic decision.
Stock said that “everything you would ever want to do outdoor-related is within an hour’s drive, and it’s all great, world-class stuff.”
It also helps that Chattanooga is a crossroads city, with easy access to many of the country’s metropolitan centers.
“Chattanooga is really the hub of a wheel of other towns and cities within two hours in any direction,” Stock said.
The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, Outdoor Chattanooga, the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and other civic organizations have seized upon the city’s outdoor appeal as a unique marketing advantage, said J.Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing and communications for the Chamber.
“The vision of positioning Chattanooga as kind of an outdoor Mecca continues to be something we in the Chamber use to pitch potential businesses to locate here,” Marston said.
Moving forward, Marston said that the Chamber and others hope to capture a larger share of this market by attracting new outdoor businesses to the city, and by helping existing ones expand to take advantage of Chattanooga’s outdoor assets.
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...