published Monday, April 7th, 2014

Brothers eye Raccoon, Aetna Mountain for ‘adventure’ tourism district

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    Campers are seen Thursday at the Raccoon Mountain Caverns and Campground.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
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    Jeff Perlaky shows the property at the Raccoon Mountain Caverns and Campground that he owns with his brother, Steven Perlaky. They have proposed expanding into 500 acres they own in Marion County, located near the crest of the mountain seen behind him.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

A pair of local brothers sees an adventure destination in their 500 acres of Marion County land just west of the Lookout Valley community in Chattanooga.

The property — on what maps dub either Raccoon Mountain or Aetna Mountain — is crisscrossed with trails, filled with wildlife and offers vistas of the Tennessee River Gorge where hikers, bikers, nature watchers and off-roading enthusiasts could seek outdoor adventures within a 15-minute drive of downtown Chattanooga.

The Perlaky brothers — Steven, 52, and Jeff, 39, also own Raccoon Mountain Caverns and Campground on adjacent land on the Hamilton County side. Those attractions draw about 100,000 visitors a year, Jeff Perlaky said.

Marion County officials are seeking a designation from the state as an “adventure tourism district” on the Perlakys’ behalf.

“The ‘adventure tourism’ designation really opens a lot of opportunities. It’s literally anything outdoors, whether it’s kayaking, birdwatching, hiking. It’s just meant to encourage people to go outside and be active and enjoy nature,” Perlaky said.

“In Marion County there are so many things to do, from fishing on Nickajack to rappelling off the mountain or just going to the top of the mountain and taking in the sights,” he said.

The Perlakys envision a range of activities such as off-roading, cycling, hiking, horseback riding, “just anything that would get people outside,” he said. The mountain’s slopes could lend themselves to ziplines, which consist of a pulley suspended on an inclined cable with the rider hanging underneath.

“That’s something we have been looking into, but at this point no determination has been made on that,” he said. “The possibilities seem endless but we would work to avoid anything that would negatively impact the cave or other land.”

The land’s use as a tourist attraction is nothing new.

The cave there, Crystal Caverns in the early days and now Raccoon Mountain Caverns, was first opened to the public in the 1930s, according to newspaper archives.

Over the decades, the Hamilton County side of the mountain was home to the “Alpine Slide,” the “Grand Prix” race course, and Native American festivals and pow-wows.

A trio of aging towers marks the path the “Mount Aetna Skyride” tram took to the top of the mountain. The Skyride — opened in 1964 as part of Crystal Caverns — took visitors to the “Living Creek Indian Village.”

A fire in 1966 forced the tram to stop operating until 1970. Hang gliders used the tram as that sport grew in popularity in the late 1970s, and it finally stopped operating in 1984 because of climbing insurance costs.

The Perlakys bought the Marion County property to secure the land above the cave and protect its watershed from contamination, Perlaky said, standing at the base of the lowest of the tram towers.

Perlaky said the old tram car is sitting behind the go-kart building. The brothers would like to return the old tram to its former glory and someday put it back into action hauling visitors to the top for spectacular views, Perlaky said.

But they are taking small steps first.

The Marion County Commission approved the resolution seeking the adventure tourism district designation March 24 and sent it on to the Department of Revenue and Department of Economic and Community Development for possible final approval.

The designation allows the qualified business — one that makes a $500,000 capital investment in a “tourism-related” activity — to receive credits of $4,500 for each qualifying job created, according to the Tennessee Adventure Tourism and Rural Development Act of 2011.

County Mayor John Graham said the business owner is responsible for preparing materials for submission to the state before any credits are issued.

“It’s an opportunity for entities that are dealing with tourism in our county to be able to get some tax relief in order to maintain their businesses,” he said.

Perlaky said an initial investment of $500,000 would pay to erect fencing at the corners of the tract and install markers along the borders so people using the property don’t get lost or wander onto land belonging to others. The money would also pay for the installation of erosion controls.

Off-roaders would probably be charged a fee for access to trails on the property, but Perlaky said hikers and sightseers probably won’t be charged a fee.

The Perlakys will have to improve heavily-rutted Aetna Mountain Road, a route across the mountain since the Civil War, before a passenger car can make it to the top, Perlaky said.

He admits a lot of “issues” have arisen about use of the road in recent years, since it passes through a high-end residential development that was part of an access battle. A court ruling in August 2010 that the road is public should guarantee access, he said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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