published Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Chattanooga tourism chief calls for new infrastructure

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Chattanooga's top tourism promoter wants renewed investment on sports and riverfront infrastructure to continue 10 straight years of growth in the industry.

Bob Doak, president and chief executive officer of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, called on city leaders to help generate ideas to expand both areas at the bureau's annual luncheon Tuesday.

Over the past decade, tourism grew from $543 million to a more than $810 million industry. With that renewed focus, he expects that trend to continue.

"The question will be whether Chattanooga will have the vision to continue to grow," he told a room of about 900 people. "How can we take the future and mold it into something that will be successful?"

Even Doak is unsure how to do that, but with three new top executives at his bureau and several new faces joining local government following this year's election, he believes now is a great time to come up with fresh ideas.

Riverfront land is quickly dwindling. Doak called for the community to carefully plan use of remaining space to ensure Chattanooga isn't left with an unwanted development or missed opportunity along one of its biggest draws.

"Having a riverfront is just to die for," said Susan Whitaker, commissioner of the state's tourism department. "Nashville will be looking at what it's done for Chattanooga."

Each year Chattanooga uses the river to host Head of the Hooch, the country's second-largest rowing regatta.

Chattanooga also is a major player in youth softball. Local officials invested in marketing and infrastructure to suit Chattanooga's facilities to the needs of those sports.

"There's a real opportunity with sports tourism," Whitaker said.

Youth sports account for between $20 million and $25 million of direct spending every year and are increasingly important tourist draws to cities across the country. Families will travel with their athlete child to a tournament destination and make that trip their family vacation.

The visitors bureau plans to research which sports are likely to deliver the best return on investment, then lobby for the appropriate facilities to attract that business. Doak is unsure where funding for such improvements would come from -- Tuesday was the first time he publicly discussed a need for investment -- but he expects it would come from a mix of public and private investment, possibly with some money coming from his bureau.

"We've been successful as a community to plan collectively before we execute and build, and I think it's time we enhance that process once again," he said. "Once we've determined what we've wanted to do, we've managed ways to pay for it. The more crucial question is what do we need."

Once the city figures out exactly what it wants, Doak hopes Chattanooga will move forward on the plans quickly, or risk losing important tourism business to other cities.

"Looking forward is one thing," he said. "Having the foresight and gumption to do something about it some something else altogether."

Contact Carey O'Neil at coneil@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6525. Follow him at twitter.com/careyoneil.

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