South Pittsburg, Tennessee, was founded nearly a century and a half ago in 1873 with the goal of becoming the Pittsburgh of the South because of the presence of coal in Southeast Tennessee and its location on the Tennessee River, similar to the coal resources and riverfront location of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
While the town founders didn't exactly match either the spelling or size of their northern namesake, South Pittsburg boosters today say the Marion County town of just over 3,000 residents has achieved a small-town, historic charm and they are looking for some national attention and help to further revive the city.
South Pittsburg last week became one of more than 3,200 communities from across the country to submit an entry to participate in the newest initiative by the television network HGTV to take over - and make over - an entire town.
Ever since Ben and Erin Napier of the hit series "Home Town" helped transform Laurel, Mississippi, the network said fans from small towns across America have flooded HGTV with requests to take on the renovation of their home towns. HGTV programming director Jodi Scheer said the network plans to select, film and air the new six-episode series "Home Town Takeover" (also known as "Home Town Rescue"), in 2021.
The competition was open to any city of under 40,000 population and entries have come from every part of the country, network officials said.
"Renovating one house at a time is an awesome experience, but the chance to support an entire town, where we can help bring a community back to life and enhance the lives of the people who live and work there, is something we've always wanted to try," Ben Napier said in an announcement of the new show. "You won't believe what a small town with a shared renovation vision and the power of HGTV, Erin and me behind them can do."
In less than two weeks, South Pittsburg boosters put together an entry and video to HGTV that showcases the local support for the town from business owners and citizens, both new and lifetime residents. But the 3-minute video appeal for help also shows a number of vacant storefronts where local boosters hope more merchants and development can occur, and it features the Dixie Freeze dairy bar, a longtime staple of South Pittsburg that is looking for a more updated look.
"We love our small-town feel, but there is still a yearning for more opportunity," said Carey Garland, director of product development at Lodge Manufacturing Co. in South Pittsburg and one of the volunteers who put the pitch together. "We have a lot of assets in South Pittsburg, but we feel like we're not yet considered a jewel of a place to visit for that weekend trip. We still need a little revitalization to get there, and we feel like we need just a little bit of help to get there."
Boosters of downtown South Pittsburg have been promoting the city to outsiders heavily since starting the Cornbread Festival in 1996 to aid it after the Highway 72 bypass routed most motorists around it. The new highway helped traffic get to the city, but it also hurt business at many of its retail storefronts.
The Cornbread Festival, which has drawn as many as 45,000 visitors in some years, and the renovation of a number of the century-old buildings in town have helped attract more attention.
Beth Duggar, president of the Cornbread Festival, said the event over the past 24 years has helped showcase South Pittsburg's downtown appeal to thousands of visitors and also demonstrated how volunteers and local groups in the town can work together.
"Everything here is pretty much a team effort - and I think that is what helps make our town special," she said.
Although South Pittsburg didn't become the major industrial powerhouse that its founder envisioned, it is home to the world's biggest producer of cast-iron cookware. Lodge Manufacturing, the family-owned business that began in 1896, operates its foundry in South Pittsburg and its factory store is a major draw for the city.
The town also includes the renovated Princess Theater, which the city now owns and which features a variety of entertainment.
Duggar and others hope if South Pittsburg is selected for the HGTV program it will help draw more retailers and restaurants to locate there and more visitors to come to Marion County.
But even if South Pittsburg's appeal doesn't win out among thousands of such appeals from throughout the country, Garland said the effort has been well worth it.
"Once again we came together as a community, and we had a lot of fun putting this together," she said.
Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or 423-757-6340.