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Tara Plumlee stands in front of the 21,000 square-foot Bell Mill Mansion in Ooltewah. It is one of her four venues in the Chattanooga area.
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Tara Plumlee holds a tray of assorted canap's in the foyer of the Bell Mill Mansion wedding venue in Ooltewah.

Chattanooga has become a destination for foodies, tech startups, outdoor enthusiasts, and in recent years, couples looking to tie the knot.

Wedding industry experts in the area agree that Chattanooga's natural beauty and cheaper cost of living compared to bigger cities, like Nashville and Atlanta, have become attractive reasons for brides and grooms to choose the city over others when deciding where to get married. A 2017 industry survey of 13,000 couples by the Knot, a popular wedding website among engaged couples, shows the average Tennessee wedding costs nearly $28,000, and local wedding vendors are more than happy to accomodate an influx of couples who find Chattanooga appealing.

Shaun Cox, local wedding planner and founder of Cue the Champagne Event Planning and Design, said the wedding business in the area is booming again after a slight lag due to the 2016 election.

"That's to be said with an election year, people are scared to see what the economy will do," she said. "I definitely think that 2018 has brought people out of that."

Liza Greever, the owner of Fox and Fern — a floral design studio in the West Village — started her business in 2015 out of her garage as a side gig while raising her young son. The 34-year-old said her wedding floral business just kept growing and has now become a full-time committment. Greever started with just five clients in 2015 and grew to more than 70 last year.

"With the industry and with the vendors and venues we have, I really feel like the sky's the limit for a bride," Greever said.

Several of Greever's clients don't live in Chattanooga, or they are getting married in the area because it's a good meeting place for all of their family and friends. While the overhead costs can get expensive in the floral business, Greever says she can still make enough to live a comfortable lifestyle by focusing on weddings.

"It plays into our tourist lifestyle," she added. "It's great for everybody and we are using the wedding market to make money."

Greever said the average floral budget for a wedding is usually anywhere from $2,500 to $4,000, but that can vary depending on the type of flowers used and what the bride and groom desire. More and more couples are moving away from the traditional, bright wedding flowers and roses and opting for more greenery, like eucalyptus and vines.

"People think that greenery will keep their cost down, and it will sometimes, but good greenery can get kind of pricey," she said.

Cox has seen several of her couples opt for a more "clean and simple" decor. She said budgets for florals, invitations and party favors are shrinking and she is seeing an increase in the amount couple's pay for entertainment, food and photography. According to Cox, one big line item that more couples are adding is transportation for guests to and from the wedding and/or reception.

"Couples are focusing on big-picture things and the experience of the guest that doesn't always equate to visuals," she said. "I'm not saying that it won't be pretty, but it will be understated and not an in-your-face-type design."

The Knot's 2017 survey states the national average cost of a wedding is now $33,391, excluding the honeymoon. This figure decreased from the previous year's survey of $35,329, but the average cost spent per guest is at an all-time high of $268.

While some brides and grooms tie the knot for much less than $28,000 in Tennessee - or a lot more - Cox said Chattanooga is becoming a destination for couples from California, New York City, Atlanta and other pricey areas where weddings could cost closer to $60,000 or more.

The Knot's most recent survey also found that "custom guest entertainment" at weddings has more than tripled — with up to 40 percent of newlyweds saying they splurged on reception "amenities," like sparklers, selfie stations and lawn games.

Surrounded by mountains and the Tennessee River, outdoor weddings are the natural choice for a lot of couples looking to wed in Chattanooga. Cox said that in recent years she has noticed fewer couples are choosing church weddings, and now a majority of her clients are opting for different venues both in the vibrant downtown area and outside of town with more scenic landscapes.

Wedding venues in Chattanooga average anywhere from $2,500 to $7,000 depending on the location and time of year. The changing leaves and allure of fall has made October a desirable time to get married in Tennessee for many couples.

Popular venues in the area include Hunter Museum of American Art along the riverfront to Grandview, which overlooks the city from atop Lookout Mountain. The Chattanooga Choo Choo or the Church on Main both provide brides and grooms with a more urban, downtown vibe for their wedding.

Tara Plumlee has found success in the Chattanooga wedding scene as the owner of four wedding and event venues and A Silverware Affair catering company. Plumlee first started her catering business, but as she saw the high demand for venues in the area from her clients, she expanded and now owns 901 Lindsay, Bell Mill Mansion, the Car Barn and the Mill.

Each venue offers something a little different based on the couple. For example, 901 Lindsay is in the heart of downtown with an outdoor ceremony garden for weddings. Bell Mill Mansion in Ooltewah boasts a 21,000 sq. ft. mansion with 15 bedrooms, a spa, resort-sized pool and more that all sit on 32 acres of scenic grounds.

Each venue also has its own kitchen.

"Food budgets are growing - they are an integral part of your wedding," Plumlee said. "And not just the food, we are supplying your staff on the floor and working the entire event."

Even couples that go intimate for their wedding guest list can still spend up to $15,000 on food, Cox said.

"Couples are spending again," she said. "2017 was a lot different and now things are coming back for 2018. I think the Chattanooga wedding market is very viable."

Contact staff writer Allison Shirk at ashirk@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

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