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Brent and RenaeSanders enjoy their stand up paddle boards Wednesday evening on the Tennessee River. "This is about our tenth time out this season," Sanders said. "It's great to see the wildlife like heron otters and fish as we paddle." The C.B. Robinson Bridge looms in the background above the Hubert Fry Pavilion at the Tennessee Riverpark.

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Rock/Creek partners with county in effort to expand outdoor offerings

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A Chattanooga-based outdoor retailer will begin exploring a new frontier in the area's bustling recreation scene next year.

Rock/Creek is slated to make a full entry to the equipment rental world through a first-of-its-kind partnership with Hamilton County that will bring the store's iconic brand directly to three of the county's recreation destinations.

It's part of the county's vision to "activate" its parks, and it's an opportunity for Rock/Creek to diversify its business model by offering rental equipment, community programs and stewardship in a way it never has during its 29-year history.

Rock/Creek will set up shop at the Tennessee Riverpark's Hubert Fry Center in the spring and begin renting bicycle and paddle sport equipment out of the building that sits catty-corner from the C.B. Robinson Bridge.

The partnership is scheduled for expansion to Enterprise South Nature Park and Chester Frost Park later in the year but will focus first on establishing the Riverpark location.

Tom Lamb, Hamilton County Parks and Recreation director, called the partnership a way to "repurpose an underutilized space," adding that the Hubert Fry Center has lacked a commercial tenant for more than a year after hosting such things as an ice cream shop and a kite shop.

"We wanted someone who could do more than set up a lemonade stand and rent boats," Lamb said. "We wanted someone who understood the vision of activating this area and bringing that outdoor recreation user group into this space."

The county made a request for proposals that returned bids from three local companies vying for the partnership opportunity.

Rusty's Kayaks & Paddle Boards and Triple B Outfitters were the other companies that submitted proposals, and Lamb said all three were good.

But in a resolution approved by the Hamilton County Commission last month, Lamb wrote that Rock/Creek is "uniquely qualified" for the role, citing its "long-standing reputation for quality products, customer service, and knowledge based on years of experience in outdoor recreation."

Rock/Creek opened a store in Franklin, Tenn., last month, its seventh retail location and first outside the southeast portion of the state. It also boasts a thriving e-commerce division.

For the space at the Riverpark, Rock/Creek will pay the county $1,500 a month and an additional rate of its rental revenue that is to be determined, according to the resolution. The agreement will last five years, with the option to renew for five additional one-year terms.

The company plans to charge renters between $10-$30 an hour for paddle boards. Trek bicycles will be available to rent for $15 the first hour and $5 for each additional hour.

Rock/Creek also outlined plans in its proposal to have programs geared at environmental education and incorporating undeserved populations into the outdoors.

"It's a completely different business model," Rock/Creek co-owner Dawson Wheeler said. "It's a rental company and a programming and educational experience."

Rock/Creek director of sales Chad Wykle said other outdoor retailers in the region have successfully forayed into the rental and programming business.

The company already offers paddle sports rentals at its Riverside Drive store and whitewater equipment rentals at its Ocoee location, but its Riverpark operation will be the first of its kind in scope, mission and proximity to the water.

A paved walk of about 200 yards separates the Hubert Fry Center from a paddling launch, and the Riverwalk provides a natural path for cyclists.

Though there is already a city BikeShare station at the Riverpark, assistant city transportation engineer Ben Taylor said in an email that he is excited about the county partnership with Rock/Creek bringing another bike rental option.

"It will help introduce a wider audience to cycling for fun and exercise, which can expand into biking for transportation," Taylor wrote. "The Bike Chattanooga system is geared toward 24/7 bike availability for commuters and visitors wanting to make trips around town and simple out-and-back fun rides.

"The Rock Creek rentals will be good for folks interested in longer rides. The two systems will complement each other by expanding access to bikes and the skills to use them to explore our great Outdoor City."

Similarly, Outdoor Chattanooga Executive Director Philip Grymes said the county's partnership with Rock/Creek will help eliminate barriers of entry to outdoor recreation.

Outdoor Chattanooga is the city's outdoor recreation arm with a headquarters in Coolidge Park that serves as a programming hub and outdoor visitors center of sorts.

"I think the partnership is a great enhancement to the Riverwalk and helps to strengthen one of Chattanooga's most iconic assets," Grymes wrote in an email.

The partnership's anticipated expansion to Chester Frost Park will include kayaks, paddle boards, rental bikes, training/recreations programs and guided tours.

At Enterprise South, road and mountain bikes will be the primary rental item. The financial details of the rental operations at those parks will be negotiated when operation begins there, which is expected to be later in 2017.

Wheeler said that if the company was looking for its next financial expansion, it would be focused on opening another store. However, the rental venture offers an opportunity for the company to engage more locals and showcase the value of outdoor recreation.

"We're going to incorporate the experts that live in this community and bring those people in to provide some of the very best programming," Wheeler said. "We don't look at this as a Rock/Creek thing. We hope to be a conduit to this whole adventure community that's out there."

And that means doing a little bit more than just selling lemonade and renting boats.

"The overall goal is not for the county to make revenue," Lamb said. "It's not to just have a jam-packed park, full of programs. The overall goal is to enhance the user experience and provide as many opportunities as possible to take advantage of all the resources we have.

"Full credit to Rock/Creek for understanding that vision."

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

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