Grundy County likes to be known for a natural beauty that attracts outdoor enthusiasts to hike, watch wildlife and take in views of the uncluttered South Cumberland Plateau, according to preservationists and local officials.
But some local officials spearheading economic efforts in the county say continued designation of Grundy properties as preserved park land to maintain that beauty is digging into county coffers. When the land is turned into state park, the county loses the property tax, and that's counterproductive to growth and jobs in a county where the population has declined 4.4 percent since 2000.
Records show park land in the South Cumberland Recreation Area, which is mostly in Grundy but also flows into Sequatchie, Marion and Franklin, has swollen from around 16,000 acres less than 10 years ago to more than 24,500 acres today, mostly through gifts to and purchases by conservation organizations.
Meanwhile, the county's population declined over the last 10 years from 14,332 in 2000 to 13,703 last year with projections that the number will fall another 7 percent in the next decade. In 2009, Grundy was deemed Tennessee's fourth-poorest county, officials said.
Grundy leaders say the last thing the county needs is a negative strike on the revenue ledger, and they're now working with state officials and conservation groups to offset the loss of tax dollars with growth in tourism.
If more of Grundy is going to parks, Brady said he wants to see park lands "networked" to attract people for more than a day and to spur commercial development.
Grundy County is home to the South Cumberland Recreation Area, which is comprised of nine separate park areas managed as a single park in a 100-square mile region of Grundy County and portions of Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie counties.
Source: Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and Friends of the South Cumberland State Recreation Area
"Some of the problems with these park areas is there's nowhere for folks to stay to visit," he said. "Once they get here, there are limited activities."
Fall Creek Falls State Resort Park near Pikeville, Tenn., is an example of a remote destination that attracts visitors for overnight stays or even longer, he said. The area, located in Van Buren County, offers accommodations for RVs, tent camping for families and groups, cabin rental, a motel and lots of activities such as horseback riding, canoeing, golf and other sports.
But Grundy's park land is scattered, which makes it important to find connections for the different sites with activities or development for visitors, Brady said.
Grundy's economic statistics are "quite startling" in the face of declining property tax revenue, said Grundy County Commissioner Michael Brady, who works in the county Property Assessor's Office and sees the losses first hand.
"There are close to 30,000 acres that are classified as a 'class III natural areas' in Grundy County," Brady said, beginning a laundry list of dismal statistics. Even at the cheapest property tax assessment as "mountain land," the tally in lost property tax is about $160,000 a year, he said.
"You take $160,000 out of a budget for a county that is already bare bones to begin with, that's huge," he said.
Park land now accounts for about 25 percent of the county. Grundy hasn't had a property tax increase in 13 years, and only one of the county's seven towns collects a municipal property tax, Brady said.
Per capita income is $12,039 -- a decline of roughly $2,000 in 10 years -- and an estimated 28 percent of Grundy residents' earnings are below the poverty level, he said.
Grundy has a 14 percent unemployment rate, 38 percent of the population is receiving food stamps and 87 percent of Grundy's school children qualify for the federal free-and-reduced-lunch program, Brady said.
Those figures show that every penny of property tax lost hurts Grundy residents, Brady said.
But members of the conservation group, Friends of the South Cumberland State Recreation Area, applaud the growth of park land, though they understand why local officials are concerned.
The group's president, Mary Priestley, said visitors to Grundy's parks could be a boon to entrepreneurs who position themselves to attract tourists.
South Cumberland Recreation Area is one of Tennessee's newer state parks and totals almost 22,000 acres over a collection of nine different areas in Grundy, Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie.
Priestley said she and Brady recognize the potential economic benefit from the park and agree the county lacks infrastructure to capture tourism dollars. Members of the Friends group are working with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation on a presentation to foster ideas for taking advantage of the area's beauty, she said.
"My hope is we will be able to gather people who are local business owners, elected officials and interested community members to view this presentation and talk about where we can go from here," she said.
A date will be announced later, she said.
TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said the presentation will include study data that found "for every dollar spent on trips to Tennessee state parks, an additional $1.11 of economic activity was generated throughout the state."
Priestley said there already are businesses that take advantage of park-bound tourists coming to Grundy.
"For decades, visitors to the Fiery Gizzard [Trail and Natural Area] in Tracy City don't feel like they've made the trip until they visit the Dutch Maid Bakery," she said.
The Tea on the Mountain restaurant is another Tracy City business that seeks park visitors, she said.
"There is such natural beauty here that attracts people," Priestly said. "We need to preserve that as an attraction, as a magnet, and use that to help individuals and businesses benefit from the traffic in the park."
In just the past few years, protected park land has expanded in Grundy County by more than 5,500 acres, Grundy officials said. In September 2010, a state partnership with the Land Trust for Tennessee and the Conservation Fund secured a 2,900-acre expansion with a $4 million commitment for the Fiery Gizzard Trail and Natural Area.
Brady said he calculated a $3,000-per-year loss if a 1,400-acre plot adjacent to Fiery Gizzard becomes a preserved area, a move that seems likely. He also is worried about reports that another 3,500 acres in the same area will be turned over to the state, signifying another loss of revenue, he said.
Both county officials and conservationists agree the county's beauty is inviting leverage for economic growth, but ideas need to be forged into a strategy.
Grundy County Register of Deeds Gayle Vanhooser hopes a no-cost feasibility study planned by TVA and Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative will determine the potential economic impact parks could have in Grundy.
The study process will include community meetings to generate local support and ideas, she said.
"We don't want to do anything the people aren't behind," Vanhooser said. "Our economic issues are dire at this point."
Everyone has ideas about making the most of Grundy County's beauty, and open community meetings will start as part of the study process expected to begin after the first of the year, she said.
"It's the thing that we really needed to bring our thoughts together see what's going to work," she said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.