Doug Chapin becomes fourth-generation leader of Rock City on Lookout Mountain

Photo by Olivia Ross / Bill Chapin stands with his son Doug Chapin in front of Garnet and Frieda's home on Wednesday, February 23 2022. Doug Chapin will take over as President and CEO, making him the fourth-generation operator at Rock City.
Photo by Olivia Ross / Bill Chapin stands with his son Doug Chapin in front of Garnet and Frieda's home on Wednesday, February 23 2022. Doug Chapin will take over as President and CEO, making him the fourth-generation operator at Rock City.

Doug Chapin, whose ancestors helped turn a Lookout Mountain garden into one of America's best-known attractions at Rock City, is taking over the tourism business from his father Bill next month.

Chapin, age 32, becomes the fifth-generation owner and fourth-generation leader of the mountaintop attraction that has lured millions of people from around the world to "See 7 States" over the past 90 years.

The younger Chapin literally grew up in the business, living in the home known as "Carter Cliffs" on the mountaintop property. He began working at his family's business in 2004 at age 15 when he greeted visitors dressed up as the character Rocky the Elf.

"Growing up here, my parents never pressured any of my sisters or me to work here, but it's a great family-owned business that I hope continues to grow over the next 90 years," Doug Chapin said during an interview at Rock City last week. "We're looking at the opportunities to continue to make memories for our guests."

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced Rock City to close for more than seven weeks in the spring of 2020, the attraction drew nearly 600,000 visitors last year.

"This is a unique and special place created by God and enhanced by man that is unlike anywhere else in the country, and we've always tried to be about welcoming people here and making memories," Bill Chapin said. "That was how Garnet and Frieda Carter started Rock City in 1932 and that's what we have continued through the generations of our family. "

Under Bill Chapin's ownership and direction over the past 37 years, See Rock City Inc. has grown to add other local businesses and tourism attractions, including Battles for Chattanooga museum, Clumpies Ice Cream Co., Good Dog, Grandview Conference Center, RiverView Inn and Starbucks, as well as the ticketing and concessions for the Incline Railway, the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center and the retail shop and café at the Creative Discovery Museum.

Bill Chapin, who moved out of Carter Cliffs two years ago and plans to retire from the business this year, also added an array of special events at Rock City during his tenure, including Enchanted Lights at Christmas, Rocktoberfest, the Shamrock City festival, EarthDayz, Southern Blooms Festival and Fairytale Nights.

"The business is in great shape right now because of the work that my father has done over nearly 40 years," Doug Chapin said.

Chapin, who has worked as a horticulture partner, Starbucks Barista, senior manager of Clumpies and director of special projects at Rock City, will succeed Susan Harris as president and CEO of See Rock City Inc. once the transition is completed in March.

Harris, who joined Rock City in 2008 and has served as president since 2016, will leave the mountaintop attraction on April 1 to become the chief operating officer at the Chattanooga Tourism Co., formerly the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Harris succeeds Mike Zumbaugh, the former chief operating officer for the tourism agency who left last September to become chief financial officer of Visit Estes Park in Estes Park, Colorado.

"This is a great family-owned business that really strives to make our partners [the employees at Rock City] part of that family to welcome our guests and make lasting memories," Harris said. "This was a family-owned business when I joined it and I'm delighted that it will remain a family-owned business in the future."

Unlike his ancestors, the younger Chapin isn't planning on moving into Carter Cliffs again where he grew up as a child. As part of a new strategic planning effort, Doug Chapin said he is looking at options for the historic structure on the bluffs to integrate with other attractions on the 12-acre Rock City Gardens footprint.

The house was erected in 1936 by the original leaders of Rock City, Garnet and Frieda Carter, who had no children. E.Y. Chapin III, who is Bill Chapin's father and Doug's grandfather, took over the business in 1954.

While Frieda built the gardens that were first opened to the public on May 21, 1932, at the start of the Great Depression, Garnet Carter sought to promote his Fairyland community and golf course he was developing on the 700 acres he bought atop Lookout Mountain.

One of the enticing features of Fairyland was to be a golf course, but construction took longer than was planned and to appease those who were clamoring to play golf, Carter created the nation's first miniature golf course under the Tom Thumb Golf name.

To promote Rock City, Carter enlisted the help of a sign painter named Clark Byers, who offered to paint a farmer's barns in exchange for letting him paint three simple words: See Rock City. The distinctive black-and-white signs appeared as far north as Michigan and as far west as Texas.

Rock City Gardens features a 4,100-foot walking trail showcasing rock formations, caves and lush woodland gardens featuring more than 400 different species of wildlife. The attraction also features gnomes and characters in a Mother Goose Village cave, a panoramic view of Chattanooga Valley from Lover's Leap, a swing-a-long bridge and stone bridge and a variety of sculptures and natural attractions.

Carter Cliffs was placed within the attraction to be close to Frieda's gardens to reflect what Chapin said is Rock City's "desire to treat each visitor as their very own guest."

"It's another asset of See Rock City Inc. to be developed and to continue the idea of Garnet Carter inviting people into his home and gardens," Bill Chapin said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

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