This story was updated June 22, 2018, at 6 p.m. with more information and photos.
Ruby Falls on Lookout Mountain unveiled the first phase of a 10-year, $20 million expansion Friday that tourism officials said will enhance the guest experience while keeping the true character and authenticity of the 88-year-old attraction intact.
The expansion includes a new "Village Plaza," ticket atrium, overlook of the city, larger gift shop and shaded outdoor patio area for guests to sit and stay awhile after descending more than 1,100 feet underground to see the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States.
The expansion also includes timed-ticket entry, self-serve kiosks, a "Journey 360 VR Experience," expanded dining area and seasonal food carts. Officials said the new front entrance and village plaza will feature musical acts for guests to enjoy before and after they see the main attraction.
"It provides a crossroads to go to various parts of the venue instead of in a single file," said Ruby Falls President Hugh Morrow after the ceremonial ribbon cutting. "The expansion and the way it was done was with conservation and keeping the family experience in mind."
Morrow said Ruby Falls is in the process of receiving LEED certification, which is "the most widely used green building system in the world." Ruby Falls incorporated more than 40 LEED strategies in the green design of the new venues, including the addition of more solar panels, LED lighting and an 8,000-galloon rainwater collection system for irrigation.
Ruby Falls' officials said the attraction sees about 500,000 visitors a year, and the planning for the master plan and expansion started about six years ago.
Beth Robinson, director of marketing, said the next phase will include expanding food services and creating more spaces for guests to relax as well as converting the former gift shop into an event venue space.
Ruby Falls announced they are also hiring 200 more employees this summer to meet guest demands.
Several city, county and state officials attended the unveiling Friday, including Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, state Sens. Bo Watson and Todd Gardenhire and the state's commissioner of tourism development, Kevin Triplett. Coppinger said the tourism industry in Chattanooga employs over 8,700 people.
Berke said Ruby Falls is an example of the "uniqueness" visitors can find in Chattanooga. He said he has heard nothing but positive things about the summer tourism outlook, mentioning the number of new hotels building in the city. Berke said tourism is not solely built on attractions, like the underground waterfall and nearby Rock City, but the ability of people to easily get around, eat and relax.
"We need unique experiences for people and part of that is the ability to stick around and enjoy themselves," he said.
Triplett said that of the $19.3 billion tourism industry in Tennessee, 70 percent of that money comes from five counties — Davidson, Shelby, Sevier, Knox and Hamilton. Local tourism officials frequently state tourism in Hamilton County is a $1 billion industry.
Triplett said he often travels the state explaining the importance of tourism to cities, but officials in Chattanooga already know the benefits of it.
"In a state with no income tax, tourism is critical," Triplett said after the ceremony. "It's really incredible the growth that is happening here."
For more information, visit the Ruby Falls website at rubyfalls.com
Contact staff writer Allison Shirk at email@example.com, @Allison_Shirk or 423-757-6651.