Cook: How much tourism is left in the ground?

Cook: How much tourism is left in the ground?

September 24th, 2017 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Like any nonrenewable energy source, our current tourist economy will one day run dry. Past economies prove this death-rebirth life cycle; from indigenous and Cherokee to pre-industrial to 20th-century factories, none last forever.

Even though our tourism seems strong — city leaders recently announced $1 billion in tourist dollars for the second straight year — sooner or later, we'll reach "Peak Tourism," the point at which the tourist tide begins to slowly recede.

To borrow a mining metaphor: How much tourism is left in the ground? How many Best Town Ever years do we have left? Twenty? Fifty? Will tourists still be traveling here in 2075?

How much tourist space do we have left to develop?

The riverfront has been done. The North Shore. And Main Street. Southside. M.L. King Boulevard is happening now.

And Patten Parkway. The interchange downtown. And Miller Park. In his tenure, Mayor Andy Berke seems to have presided over enormous amounts of beautification — or gilding, depending on your perspective. Don't forget about the Casey barge removal.

It leaves little for the next mayor. (Watch out, College Hill Courts.)

Yes, more and more people are moving downtown, but they don't carry a $1 billion impact. Earlier this month, a little headline caught my eye: Applebee's closed its downtown restaurant.

"There wasn't enough business," explained Craig Perry, of Halo Restaurant Group.

Nationwide, Applebee's restaurants are hurting, but the restaurant wasn't alone; Porker's Bar-B-Que recently closed. So, too, the English Rose tea room. And World of Beer. And the Henpecked Chicken.

Are these the canaries in our tourist-economy coal mine?

Yes, tourism is currently alive and well and brings 8,700 jobs and $12 million a year to public schools.

But what's the median hourly wage for those 8,700 jobs?

And if we're bringing in $1 billion a year in tourist dollars, isn't $12 million kind of paltry?

If we live by tourist dollars, we'll die by them, as well, which is why city leaders keep generating new sources of tourism development.

Cue the old Wheland/U.S. Pipe foundry site.

There's early talk about renovating the foundry site with a new Chattanooga Lookouts stadium and all the restaurants, craft beer and shops that would follow.

Oh, please don't.

At a time of immense local poverty, pressing environmental concerns, and a growing have-and-have-not divide, the idea of tearing down a fine stadium to rebuild it a half-mile away seems absurdly wasteful, economically brazen and spiritually hollow.

The stadium is just fine where it is. Sun's in your eyes? Wear a visor. Move seats.

"Start the games 15 minutes later," one friend said.

Plus, there are better options for the foundry site.

"A multi-use indoor arena," wrote Michael Lawrence in a recent letter to the editor.

Specifically, an arena for ice hockey. Lawrence said he spoke with Bill Davidson, CEO of Atlanta's Gladiators hockey team, who said Chattanooga is perfect for hockey.

"The only thing missing is a venue," Lawrence wrote.

If we can pack Finley Stadium for soccer, then we can be a hockey town, too.

City leaders say the development would bring business and attention to the local community, like The Howard School and outer rim of South Broad Street.

Good.

But the need for that has been there for decades.

That's why the foundry site should become a new reincarnation of Kirkman Technical School, which once sat on Hawk Hill, where the Lookouts Stadium now sits.

There seems a real injustice in the idea of building two Lookouts stadiums before rebuilding one technical school.

There seems another real injustice within the idea of tearing down an otherwise fine stadium and relocating it only a half-mile away while Howard's track, softball field and who-knows-what-else continue to crumble in disrepair. And have for years.

Yes, I drink from this cup of tourism bounty. What a gift it's been in so many ways for this city. But it is not an endless cup. This new attempt at Wheland Foundry could be the last of the big downtown developments for a long time.

Let's build it for the people, not just tourists.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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