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On a fishing trip from Pikeville, Ky., Kierra Prater, George Prater and Jerry Prater, from left, shop for gear at the Dayton Boat Docks and Grill on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in Dayton, Tenn. Competitive fishing tournaments have helped the economy in Dayton and Rhea County.

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Reeling in dollars: Rhea County boosts economy through competitive bass fishing

Distressed counties

List of Tennessee counties classified as distressed by the Appalachian Regional Commission:

1. Johnson

2. Cocke

3. Hancock

4. Claiborne

5. Campbell

6. Scott

7. Pickett

8. Fentress

9. White

10. Grundy

11. Bledsoe

12. Rhea

13. Lewis

14. Van Buren

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For some large fishing tournaments, Dayton visitors must walk across U.S. Highway 27 to access Lake Chickamauga. Dennis Tumlin, executive director of Rhea County’s Economic and Tourism Council, is applying for grants to construct pedestrian access to the lake underneath the highway. The plan would also increase the town’s walkability as a whole. “Picture Chattanooga’s Riverwalk,” Tumlin said.

 

DAYTON, Tenn. — When Gabe Keen posed for photos with the state-record largemouth bass here in February, the caption could have said, "Dennis Tumlin called it."

Tumlin, Rhea County's director of economic and tourism development, had insisted that signs be posted at Lake Chickamauga touting it as "Home of the next state-record bass."

After reeling in his 15-pound, 2-ounce catch, Keen scratched through the word "next" and wrote "new" on a sign. It was one man's endorsement that Tumlin and Dayton Mayor Gary Louallen have put their efforts in the right place by tapping into the bass fishing industry.

In an area long known mainly for the courthouse in which the historic Scopes Monkey Trial took place, bass boats and the slack-jawed fish are making that famous debate on evolution a secondary attraction.

Bass fishing has brought thousands of people from across the country to Dayton over the last three years, and Tumlin markets it as "the new bass fishing capitol of the South."

Guntersville, Ala., may contest that title, but Dayton's emergence as a destination for anglers is hard to ignore.

NBC Sports Network is airing an hourlong special this fall going inside a 2015 Fishing League Worldwide professional event held on Lake Chickamauga. Officials say $10 million in current local development follows directly in the wake of the fishing boom.

It is an industry that appears sustainable in a county that the Appalachian Regional Commission counts as one of 14 in the state that are economically distressed.

"The fishing tournaments, they do drive local business," said Nathaniel Eastwood, a Dayton native and a graduate of Bryan College. He is general manager for the 55-room Sleep Inn & Suites that is under construction in Dayton. "It creates a demand that business owners see. We wanted to help with that.

"We're looking to feed off of what they're doing here."

The hotel will have fishermen-friendly features, including electrical hook-ups for boats in a parking lot designed for vehicles pulling trailers.

It's the type of business endeavor that Louallen and Tumlin envisioned popping up in town when they identified fishing as a potential economic catalyst after a Dayton city councilman commissioned them to research tourism in 2011.

Then Louallen was elected mayor in April 2013. He hired Tumlin away from his position as an account manager for Coca-Cola in January of 2014, and suddenly they found themselves with powerful positions within the community. They already had momentum, and they already had a vision to push Dayton and Rhea County forward and, perhaps, off of ARC's list of distressed counties.

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Attracting big fishing events was the first step.

The push started with events in 2013. Then, in 2014, the ESPN family of networks televised events from Dayton several weeks in a row. The town hosted 34 tournaments that year, which altogether drew more than 10,000 people to the city, Tumlin estimates.

They scaled it back a bit in 2015, scheduling more efficiently and not saying yes to every event.

"We're treating it like an industry," said Louallen, also an avid fisherman.

They are marketing it like one, too.

Tumlin has turned the phrase "Fish Dayton" into a brand. He distributes magnets and tall tumbler drinking cups with the "Fish Dayton" logo on them. He has a web developer maintain fishdayton.com, where tournament directors and others can check the schedule of events on Lake Chickamauga. Tourists can book hotels and read about local dining options on the site.

Fish Dayton looks like something that could be its own entity. But there is no Fish Dayton department at City Hall. In fact, when you click the contact tab on the website, Louallen's and Tumlin's faces appear, along with their cellphone numbers.

According to both men, local critics accuse them of losing touch with opportunities in more traditional industry.

Others in the rural town of 7,400 are disgruntled by increased traffic when large fishing tournaments are in town or when a tournament forces them to put their boats in the water somewhere besides their usual location.

But Tumlin points to efforts from his office to attract normal brick-and-mortar-based jobs. He says the idea behind the fishing push is simply to diversify the economy.

The numbers are staggering. The two say $12.8 million in new dollars came into the local economy last year, and if it wasn't because of the thousands of people who were here to fish, they're re not sure what caused the unprecedented cash influx. Lodging tax revenue increased by 14 percent in the county last year, and a record $523,006 in sales tax was generated in June 2014, when Bassmaster Elie Series' BASSfest came to Dayton.

"Some people don't really understand this," Louallen said. "But the only thing we've done different is fishing."

In Rhea County, about 31 percent of sales tax revenue stays in the county and more than half of what the county keeps goes to local schools.

The season could be extended even longer, Tumlin says, if the Tennessee Valley Authority would work with Rhea County officials to keep the water level higher for longer on Lake Chickamauga.

Recognizing the economic impact of bass fishing seems to be growing with the sport.

Last year, Michigan state legislators passed a bill allowing the state's Natural Resources Commission to extend the bass season, citing fishing as a major economic driver.

Also last year, a February Bassmaster Classic tournament on Lake Guntersville, Alabama's largest fishing impoundment, was estimated to have $20 million economic impact on Birmingham.

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Bill Taylor is a director of tournament operations for FLW and a former professional fisherman. He's seen venue after venue over decades in the fishing world.

But he said he has rarely seen the level of local backing that he sees in Dayton.

"They've really become proactive in recruiting big events," Taylor said. "And it's gotten to be one of the best destinations because of the community support."

A team of about 40 volunteers coordinated by the sheriff's office helps put on the competitions. It's a personal touch that Taylor said FLW events held closer to Chattanooga at Chester Frost Park lacked.

"So we contacted the Dayton mayor (Louallen), went for a visit, sat down and decided to bring one here."

It's a relationship that looks like it's going to continue.

"Dayton is set up so that they can accommodate a lot of anglers who stay there for multiple days," Taylor said. "They've got it right. The new hotel coming in there is going to have a lot of room and it's going to impact their returns. those are the things we must have to accommodate the anglers that come in. The fishermen are our customers.

"We've got to be able to give them a good experience, and when they go to Dayton, Tenn., they get a good experience."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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