Outside Magazine praises, slams Chattanooga in cover story

Ranks Scenic City as best place to live while rattling off list of faults

photo An aerial view of AT&T field and Downtown Chattanooga looking East.
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More than one-third of online voters chose Chattanooga as the "best town ever" in Outside magazine's contest to determine the nation's foremost outdoors destination.

That's a "hands down" win, said Ryan Krogh, the magazine's research editor.

But the cover story in Outside's October issue reads more like a chapter from writer Chuck Thompson's upcoming book slamming the South than an ode to an outdoors paradise.

Thompson, who plans to release a book in 2012 about the South called "Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession," said Monday that, although he liked Chattanooga, "I don't think that readers of Outside want some whitewashed version of everything."

In between nods to the Scenic City's nationally renowned rock climbing, hang gliding, bike riding and rafting, the Oregon-based writer took swipes at what he saw as Chattanooga's political incorrectness.

"It's not easy twisting your head around the idea of Outside's Best Town being in a place with a history of monstrous industrial abuse ... ubiquitous evangelical dogma, and a reputation for red-state conservatism," he wrote in the article.

Social issues aside, Thompson said he had a blast and will return.

His literary pokes at the city were somewhat "tongue-in-cheek," he said, and were actually meant to convey the idea that "when you're sitting on a tourist gold mine," too much publicity could ruin the city.

"The texture changes when people flood the place," he said.

But he stands by his municipal review, including his summary of the "hookup scene" as "lacking," and a quote by an anonymous single that Chattanooga is "a town of sixes, and barely enough of those."

photo The cover of the October issue of Outside Magazine teases the "Where to Live Now" story featuring Chattanooga.

apples and oranges?

Thompson's comparison of the city's political structure and dating scene with its outdoor attributes left a few outdoorsmen confused -- and not just because a photo of the Walnut Street Bridge was mislabeled as being Veterans Bridge.

"Those seem like some weird things to be talking about for winning an outdoor award," said Michael Phillips, Chattanooga-based owner of online retailer SUPpaddleboard.com.

But Thompson said it's only natural to evaluate a city on all its merits, not just the ones tourists see when they're in the woods.

"You can only talk about mountains and rivers and sunsets for so long," he said. "The real stories are about the people that you meet."

To that end, an upcoming paddleboard race at the city's River Rocks festival is just one of a number of high-profile events that tourism officials say are bringing in ever-growing numbers of bikers, boaters and hikers to visit and live in Chattanooga.

Events such as River Rocks represent the marriage between athletic events and social occasions, officials said, and give visitors a chance to evaluate a city not just on the pros and cons of its trails, but on its dining, dating and drinking.

"No location has all perfect factors all the time, but when you look at the overriding benefits of the outdoors here -- the fact that rock climbers are moving here because of a certain type of rock climbing -- that's pretty cool, and they'll take on whatever small minor elements there are to reap the big benefits," said Steve Genovisi, vice president of sales and marketing for the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau.

One such rock climber, Floridian Dan Kasthel, said political or religious considerations don't really factor into a decision to visit Chattanooga for his group of six climbers.

"This is one of the triumvirate of big rock climbing places in the Southeast," he said. "That's the primary reason I'm here."

Though climbers tend to be a "liberal group of pot-smoking hippies," he said he has yet to encounter any hostility from Chattanooga residents.


Publication: Outside magazine, October 2011 issuePaid circulation: 675,000What: 21,975 voters participated in an online "Best Town Ever" contest that saw Chattanooga take the top spotHow many: 7,434 voters, or 33.8 percent, chose ChattanoogaFeature: "Sweet Home ... Chattanooga?"Author: Chuck Thompson, author of the forthcoming "Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession" and "Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer."Quote: "The best cities are sometimes the ones that haven't quite arrived. They are places where people talk more about momentum and the future and promises yet to be fulfilled than about skyrocketing home values and what a [pain] it is to park downtown."

cost of living

The city's jobs-friendly climate also allows a broader swath of outdoor enthusiasts to live in the city, compared with more expensive cities on the list such as Boulder, Colo.; Burlington, Vt., and Thompson's current home, Portland, Ore.

The $128,000 median home value in Chattanooga, for instance, compares extremely favorably with the $477,700 median home price in Boulder, the $249,900 houses in Burlington and $296,100 median home prices in Portland.

Don Stock, rock-climbing president and owner of Chattanooga-based The Adventure Guild, doesn't agree with the notion that a city must be progressive or liberal to qualify as an outdoors icon.

"Everybody has their own angle on how to do life and faith, or lack of faith," Stock said.

Stock, who himself is both a man of faith and an outdoorsman, said the region's conservative values "don't diminish the fact that there's great art, great music, great climbing and great boating."

"Actually it sounds a little like sour grapes to me, since Portland didn't get voted the top spot," he said, picking on the author's hometown.

For his primary source in the Outside article, Thompson quoted Chattanoogan Trevor Childress, an outdoors enthusiast who spent a day guiding the travel writer through hang gliding, swimming, hiking, climbing and kayaking.

Although Childress disparaged Chattanooga's climate and pooh-poohed its selection as "best town ever" in the magazine, Childress now says he was quoted unfairly and out of context and added that he is "absolutely in love with Chattanooga."

"He makes me out to be a little bit more negative than I am about Chattanooga," said Childress, who works for city-owned Outdoor Chattanooga. "He was trying to dig up as much negative stuff as possible for his book, and he's not a big fan of the South."

"He tries really hard to find a reason not to like Chattanooga," he said. "But you've got to look at the author."

Thompson acknowledged that a city with nonprogressive leanings is "not incompatible at all" with the idea of an outdoors utopia.

"There is a prejudice that some people have out here in the liberal Northwest, that red state Republicanism is not compatible," he said. "I think it might surprise people that a conservative Republican leader [U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.] was the driving force behind that riverfront."

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