published Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Business Briefcase: Park visitors boost economy

Park visitors boost economy

America's oldest military park pumped nearly $50 million into the economy of Northwest Georgia in 2010, according to a new study conducted for the National Park Service.

The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park attracted 991,901 visitors in 2010. Those visitors spent more than $49.3 million, 52 percent of which was related to food and lodging. Such spending supported 724 jobs.

A hundred miles to the northeast, the nation's most visited national park generated more than 16 times more business. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracted nearly 9.5 million visitors in 2010. The park service study estimates those visitors spent $818.2 million during the year and helped support 11,367 jobs.

Nashville's Opry Mills to reopen

Opry Mills in Nashville, one of the South's biggest outlet shopping centers, will reopen on March 29 -- nearly two years after succumbing to Cumberland River flooding in May 2010.

Opry Mills includes more than 60 new and returning retailers and dining options, including Brooks Brothers Factory Store, Coach Factory Store, Cole Haan Outlet, J.Crew Factory, Lucky Brand Outlet, Michael Kors, Nike Factory Store, Polo Ralph Lauren Factory Store, Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th and Tommy Bahama Outlet.

City acquires British accent

Chattanooga may still favor sweet tea over high tea, but the Scenic City is taking on a bit of a British accent with the addition of a new U.S.-United Kingdom business club.

The British American Business Group of the Southeast U.S. has created a sub-chapter in Chattanooga. Chattanooga immigration attorney Terry Olsen, who helped start the group in January, said 16 members have already joined the business group.

"The overall purpose is to foster business ties and professional working relationships between the U.S. and United Kingdom," he said.

On March 22 at 5:30 p.m., the group will have its first pub night at the Mountain City Club with more than a half dozen members of the Atlanta club coming to Chattanooga.

The British American Business Group is celebrating its 30th year "and it is terrific to have enthusiastic participation from the Chattanooga business community as we continue to expand our activities," said Phil Box, president of the Atlanta-based group.

Board members of the new Chattanooga sub chapter include Tina Liburd, Ken Goldsmith, Michael Goode, Ken Jordan, Julio Cachay, and Jeff Morris.

Wells Fargo to add fees

Wells Fargo will roll out a $7 monthly checking account fee to customers in Georgia and five other states starting in May. Customers who agree to receive online bank statements will pay a $5 fee.

Wells Fargo, which acquired Wachovia Bank branches last year, stopped offering free checking to new customers in 2010 and began charging a similar fee to existing customers in 23 states at the beginning of 2011. The bank has branches in 39 states.

Customers who meet certain criteria, such as having monthly direct deposits of at least $500 or maintaining a minimum balance of $1,500, will qualify for a fee waiver. The company believes the majority of its customers qualify to avoid the new monthly fee, says spokeswoman Lisa Westermann.

Banks have been experimenting with new charges in response to a regulation that slashed the fees they can charge retailers when consumers use debit cards. Consumers have fought back, though, causing Bank of America, Wells Fargo and others to rescind monthly debit card fees.

BOA to cut home loan balances

Bank of America Corp. has agreed to reduce the loan balances of underwater home-owners more aggressively than other banks, saying that by next month it will start contacting 200,000 borrowers who may qualify.

The pledge is part of a side deal that Bank of America signed when it and other large providers of mortgage customer service reached a recent $25 billion foreclosure-abuse settlement with state and federal government agencies.

Writing down the balance of home loans for underwater borrowers -- people who owe more than their homes are worth -- is a controversial practice. Studies have shown, though, that it is an effective way to motivate troubled borrowers to keep paying their loans.

Bank of America spokesman Rick Simon said the bank has agreed to eliminate the entire underwater portion of some mortgages that it owns or services for other investors, with the average reduction expected to be more than $100,000. Most of the eligible mortgages were originated by Countrywide Financial Corp., the home lender that Bank of America acquired in 2008.

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