COALMONT, Tenn. - Powered by a certification as an "adventure tourism district," Grundy County could become home to an off-roading park that is joined to the business community in the tiny town of Coalmont.
The community of about 840 is in the center of Grundy County, surrounded by wooded, rolling terrain, deep gorges, sparkling creeks and giant boulders. It's perfect for the off-roading community, whether they just want to ride and enjoy the scenic beauty or test their stump-jumping vehicles against the toughest obstacles nature can offer.
The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and the Tennessee Department of Revenue issued Adventure Tourism District certifications to the following counties. The numbers in parenthesis show the number of districts certified in each county.
Source: Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association
The idea for the proposed Southern Gulf Off Road Park has been in the works for several years. But the recent tourism district designation could boost the project by allowing off-roaders to legally drive on public roads to gas stations, restaurants, convenience stores and other businesses. That means they won't have to put their off-road vehicles back on a trailer to get fuel or something to eat.
Coalmont's was among 38 districts certified this year in 15 Tennessee counties by the state Department of Economic and Community Development and Department of Revenue.
Coalmont City Commissioner Dale Layne, who has been part of the planning, says property acquisition is still developing and officials can't discuss details, but they believe the designation could be a boon locally.
"The people come now to ride here," Layne said, noting that most local residents have all-terrain vehicles, four-wheel-drive trucks, motorcycles and even "rock crawlers" meant to tackle the meanest terrain around.
"Rural, undeveloped raw land is not as available anymore," he said. "We're hoping this can be an economic driver for our community and our county."
The town got an $800,000 grant to develop the park. The town's 20 percent match will include $100,000 cash and another $100,000 of in-kind development work to be performed with help from the Southern Four Wheel Drive Association. Association officials state on the group's website that they committed to $100,000 in volunteer hours to help build the park.
Grundy is already home to Savage Gulf State Natural Area, South Cumberland State Park, Grundy Lakes State Park and Grundy Forest State Natural Area and its Fiery Gizzard Trail, but those are all for people-powered uses.
Layne said off-roaders invest a lot of money in their pastime and people who love the outdoors could easily spend a week checking out nearby natural areas on the Cumberland Plateau.
A 200-page business plan crafted in 2012 by the architectural firm Farmer Morgan LLC provides details about the park, the users and survey-based predictions about how it will play in the local economy.
The document contains plans for a site south of town designated as the "Cardin property" that has since been purchased by a private party, meaning the search for land continues.
Layne said park plans would easily apply to other parcels in the same terrain around Coalmont.
A 2011 survey of more than 1,200 potential park users, mostly from the Southeast, showed that 61 percent earned more than $50,000 a year. Some 70 percent said they would spend at least $200 per trip to visit the park.
The business plan figures in a $16 permit fee that would generate $160,000 from every 10,000 visitors. Revenue from special events and associated memorabilia sales, cabin and camping fees, and the like are not included in those estimates, but Layne says that's where the community gains.
"There are opportunities for people to do things in business," he said. The park could spawn businesses that repair off-road vehicles and ATVs, rent vehicles and equipment or supply camping gear, accommodations, groceries and good, hot food.
Vivian Coffelt manages her parents' store, L&L Mart, at Coalmont's Highway 56-Highway 108 junction, the main source of gas and convenience items in town.
"I know it will be a big benefit for us. We have gas, we have hot food, we're open 24-7," Coffelt said in the store full of lunchtime customers on Thursday.
Next door, Coffelt's nephew Jeremy Brown runs an equipment rental store. He's also a former off-roader and staunch park supporter. Another member of the family runs a hardware store alongside.
"I think it'll be a good opportunity for new business," said Brown, 31. "It's a great idea and it'll bring revenue to Coalmont and Grundy County."
Brown said he used to enjoy off-roading all the time, but had sold his Jeep as demands of family life dictated changes.
But the park could mean "I'll have to get back into it," he said.
Layne said he and supporters hope the park will have features that appeal to everyone, "from things for children to do up to the bucket-listers," he said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/BenBenton, www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.