Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Treasure in our Backyard- Lookout Mountain Scenic Parkway by John Dersham

We have one of America’s most scenic drives right here in DeKalb County. The Lookout Mountain Scenic Parkway is a state scenic byway and is in the beginning stages of becoming a National Scenic Byway. Lookout Mountain Parkway runs from Gadsden, Alabama to Chattanooga, Tennessee through the Northwest corner of Georgia. The parkway runs 103 miles from its beginning at Noccalula Falls in Gadsden to its terminus at Ruby Falls in Chattanooga. The mountain itself is 93 miles long but the parkway meanders for added scenic value to its travelers. Over the last several years Lookout Mountain Parkway has been honored by Readers Digest as one of America’s Most Scenic Drives and by National Geographic Traveler Magazine’s Driving Tours of Appalachia. Thirty seven miles of this beautiful drive are in our county giving our county the longest single portion of the drive.
Lookout Mountain Parkway is beautiful year-round with its host of scenic venues along the way including Noccalula Falls Park in Gadsden, Alabama then north through beautiful rural countryside up to Little River Canyon National Preserve. The scenic parkway includes an alternate drive along the rim of the canyon with multiple easily accessible overlooks that provide breath-taking views into the canyon. Little River Canyon National Preserve is host to many, many plant and animal species, some of which are native only to the canyon. Little River Canyon National Preserve has just completed some great new projects that enhance the visitors experience in the park. There is a new boardwalk hike that extends from the parking lot and makes a loop through the woods to wind up at Little River Falls with wonderful views and places to sit. The trail is handicap friendly. In addition, there is a new trail leaving from the Canyon Center and going down to LRC. It goes under the new H35 bridge which was completed in 2010 and allows the visitor great views of the Canyon and falls without having to cross the road. In addition over the last few years LRC has recieved a great new parking lot, picnic tables and they have improved the view accessibility along the Canyon Rim. All of these things greatly enhance your visit to Little River Canyon National Preserve. This is a must stop along your drive of the scenic parkway.
Lookout Mountain Parkway runs through the portion of the eastern USA that is the transition geography between northern and southern plant and animal species and in this particular area many species of both northern and southern plants and animals thrive. After Little River Canyon, you head north toward DeSoto State Park. From DeSoto State Park you will enjoy a seven mile wilderness drive to Mentone. Along the way you will see a short drive off the parkway to go visit the 104 foot DeSoto Falls. In Mentone you will find a host of cabins, B&B’s, restaurants and quaint artsy gift shops. Located in Mentone is the Mentone Springs Hotel built in 1884 which is now a B&B, it is the oldest hotel in Alabama still in operation. From Mentone follow the LMP signs that will lead you into Georgia and north along the eastern brow of Lookout Mountain. You will gradually work your way north toward Cloudland Canyon State Park, which is a short drop off the parkway. Cloudland Canyon is another marvel of Mother Nature that will make your Lookout Mountain Parkway trip well worthwhile. As you head toward Cloudland Canyon you will finish your trip back on the western brow of the mountain until you head down the mountain in Chattanooga. Along the western brow you will find Lookout Mountain Flight Park. It is the largest and most popular Hang Gliding resort and school in the US. Later along the drive you will pass Covenant College, known as the castle in the clouds from its prior days as a resort hotel. It can often be seen covered in fog when viewed from I-59 and I-24. Another thing to see as you head toward Tennessee is the famous Rock City located just before the Tennessee state line. Rock City is known for its view of seven states and for its incredible rock formations. As Lookout Mountain begins its decline down to Moccasin Bend on the Tennessee River you will find the quaint artsy town of Lookout Mountain Tennessee. Just off the parkway are Point Park Civil War Park and the famous incline railroad bringing you up or down from the foot of the mountain below. Finally there is Ruby Falls. This water fall is underground inside Lookout Cave. You ride in an elevator into the cave for this magnificent view of Ruby Falls. Lookout Mountain Parkway is the host to the southern portion of the very popular World’s Longest Yard Sale every August.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Alabama Department of Tourism Reports 2011 was the Best Year Ever by John Dersham

Last week I attended the quarterly statewide tourism meetings in Dothan, Alabama.
These meeting are comprised of the Alabama Department of Tourism and three other independent organizations that promote tourism in Alabama. The meeting is in a different location each quarter as to help promote tourism all around the state. This year I am honored to represent DeKalb County as the Co-Chair of the Alabama Association of Conventions and Visitors Bureaus. In these all day meetings we spend time discussing upcoming marketing and operating plans, we review results of former plans and we discuss our long term goals.
Lee Sentell presented a new updated version of The Year of Alabama Food and an all new program called Alabama Road Trip. He showed commercials that will air on the nearly 50 Raycom network TV stations all around the USA. These commercials are beautifully done and very inviting to our potential visitors who will see these commercials all across the continental US and even in Hawaii. The Alabama Road Trip commercials begin with a man in a 1953 Cadillac Convertible heading out on one of these trips. This will be an ongoing program and will include various road trips that will ultimately cover the whole state.
Lee Sentell also reported that 2011 was the best year ever in Alabama Tourism. Last year tourists spent 10.3 billion dollars in the Alabama economy with a record number of 26 million visitors. Lee also reported an increase in tourism jobs by an additional 21,181 which means 178,000 people make all or part of their income in tourism. Tourism is Alabama’s largest non agricultural employer. Revenue collected by the state from tourists primarily goes into the Alabama General Fund. To better understand just how much tax revenue tourism is collecting for our state, each family living in Alabama would have to pay an extra $400.00 a year in taxes to reach the same number (if tourism spending did not exist).
The success in the numbers comes from a slowly improving economy but was also greatly aided by the recovery in the Gulf. Whereas 2010 was adversely affected by the Gulf Oil Spill, 2011 made a major comeback due to people wanting to visit the Gulf Beaches again but also due to a large ad campaign by BP to promote tourism all across the Gulf. These ads are still running.
We had a good year in North Alabama too. Early reports show our growth over 2010 to be from 2-12% depending on location.
In the 10 years Lee Sentell has been Director of the Department of Tourism, the growth in Alabama has been phenomenal. In fact it has grown from $6.5 billion in visitor spending to $10.3 billion in the period of 2002-2011. Here is a special thanks to Lee and his entire staff for this their 10th year. When you go to the statewide meetings as I do and the state gives their presentations it is easy to see how we have been so successful. In addition, our Department of Tourism has won numerous awards given out by organizations that are looking at all 50 states. Congratulations!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Come Relax in Paradise by John Dersham

Our area is a bit different than most Alabama Counties in that a significant portion of tax revenue raised from tourism comes from actual tourists. Here is what I mean. In many cities and counties tourism dollars are raised by people who are not necessarily there on vacation. They are on business trips. Business travelers are considered tourists because the money they spend is from outside the area and is new money spent in our area from outside. In many larger areas a big part of tourism is bidding for meeting and conventions. This is especially true in the cities where large convention centers and large meeting and accommodation spaces exist. In DeKalb County we host some meetings and conferences every year and we are excited when this business comes to us. It is not, however our primary generator of tourism dollars. We are a leisure tourism area. Our visitor comes because they have planned a vacation or weekend here specifically to be a tourist. All of our top attractions revolve around a scenic leisurely vacation. These attractions are Little River Canyon, DeSoto State Park, Sequoyah Caverns, the town of Mentone, the Alabama Fan Club and Museum, statues and fan appreciation weekend. Other attractions are city of Fort Payne Boom Days historical appeal and the Depot Museum. On Sand Mountain the new Agri-Business Center in Rainsville is bringing in tourists as does Collinsville Trade days. A new growing audience for us is the younger adventure sports market. True Adventure Sports specializes in activities such as repelling, rock climbing, zip lines, canoeing, kayaking etc. All of these capture the 35 and younger crowd. We have traditionally been a baby boomers leisure market and we still are but The N.E. Agri Business Center and True Adventure sports have greatly helped grow our number of younger visitors. There a many other attractions in DeKalb County for tourists like Miracle Pottery and Orbix Glass and a host of other artisans that attract visitors our way. The fact remains that our tourism revenue stemming from the 65 million dollars spent by tourists in DeKalb County is mostly coming from vacationers. This is very good for us because vacationers return here time and time again. We are fortunate here is DeKalb County to have a very high return rate for leisure travelers. Once people come here they tend to come back. We are trying to get more to come the first time because we know once here they will most likely return. Our true southern hospitality, low costs, and easy access with low overall traffic make us perfect for weekend travelers 200 miles or less away. Many of our weekend visitors have become attracted to staying at one of our 150 rental cabins, our B&B’s or our campgrounds and hotels. We are very fortunate to live in an area that is nearly guaranteed to keep bringing in tourism dollars. Our demographics for tourists tell us they live close enough, have enough money and are the right age to keep coming for many years into the future.