'Gateway to the Smokies' No More: Knoxville is Fast Earning a National Reputation as a Recreation Destination in Itself

Paul Angell didn't think much of Knoxville at first.

Angell is the head of a Greeneville, S.C., company called Checkpoint Tracker, which stages an annual adventure race—a wilderness sufferfest for superfit endurance freaks who team up for 30 straight hours of mountain biking, trail running, paddling, and climbing. It's essentially a mountain-sports version of capture the flag for professional outdoor masochists.

When a couple of people—including Susan Whitaker, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development—recommended Knoxville as a location for the 2013 race, Angell shrugged. His previous three races had been held in areas known around the world as first-class adventure destinations.

"To be honest, we were skeptical, because of the surrounding geography and because Knoxville is a big, spread-out sort of place," Angell says.

"Traditionally, where we've done our championship—Moab, in Utah, speaks for itself. We did the next one at Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky. … That was sort of a crazy, weird place. Last year we did it in the New River Valley in West Virginia, which is also a world-renowned adventure destination for whitewater rafting, the [New River] Gorge, BASE jumping, you name it.

"To be brutally honest, Knoxville doesn't immediately emerge in people's minds as one of those kinds of places."

It's true. For decades, Knoxville has been identified as a stop on the way to outdoor recreation rather than a destination on its own—the Gateway to the Smokies, a midpoint between the Appalachian Mountains to the west and the Cumberlands to the east, a short drive away from world-class rapids in Western North Carolina and North Georgia. Gnarly outside thrills can be found all around, but in Knoxville? Who would come here for that kind of fun?

Angell changed his mind after visiting Knoxville. The city's network of trails and greenways, the Tennessee River running right by downtown, and enough bad-ass wilderness nearby for his 100-mile course convinced him that the location just might work. The fourth edition of the Checkpoint Tracker Adventure Racing Championship, with more than 100 top-flight racers from around the world, will be held almost entirely inside Knox County this weekend (see sidebar); a second, shorter race for novice adventurers will be held on Saturday. Both will end in the heart of downtown, at the Krutch Park Extension on Gay Street.

And that's just one of several developments that indicate Knoxville is building a reputation as an affordable and accessible headquarters for serious outdoor goings-on. The Mother Nature Network recently named Knoxville one of the top 15 cities for outdoor enthusiasts, alongside such classic adventure towns as Jackson, Wyo., and Bozeman, Mont.; Seattle-based outdoor-sports retail monster REI announced this summer that it will open its second Tennessee store in West Knoxville in 2014; and hundreds of industry insiders will land in Knoxville in November for the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance fall trade show, an annual expo of new gear and clothing from Patagonia, Merrell, Mountain Hardwear, Arc'teryx, and dozens of other manufacturers that will be held here through 2016.

And that's all in addition to the dozens of organized hikes, trail races, group runs, beer runs, bike rides, paddling sessions, road races, and climbing classes that are available for all levels of athletes, all over town, almost every day and night of the week. People in Knoxville, it seems, love to get outside and do fun stuff.

And now people outside Knoxville are starting to notice that, too.

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Two recent and related projects have served as very public symbols of Knoxville's new wild side: the Urban Wilderness trails in South Knoxville and the Outdoor Adventure Center at Volunteer Landing. But those—just like the new REI store, the Checkpoint Tracker adventure race, and the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance trade show—are more than just shiny new tourist magnets. They're the visible culmination of years of hard work, big dreams, good luck, and happenstance.

The foundations of Knoxville's current adventure renaissance go back about a decade. In 2004, the Knoxville Track Club started a series of trail races. Early turnout for the low-key races at I.C. King Park in South Knoxville, Haw Ridge State Park in Oak Ridge, and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area was so low that the club considered abandoning it.

"It was typically 15, 20, 25 runners then, but the growth over the last five years has been exponential," says Michael deLisle, KTC's trail-race director. "It's been really gratifying. It's rejuvenated me personally. It's also caused the track club to realize we need more than one person in charge of this, so we've got a committee that at one point was five or six people that's now 12 people."

About the same time, members of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, with the permission of the city, started building a mountain-bike trail around Hastie Park in South Knoxville.

"I've been recreating outdoors in Knoxville ever since I came to town in 1994," says Brian Hann, who spearheaded AMBC's efforts. "We used to leave out of UT's campus on our mountain bikes and head up the railroad tracks all the way to Calhoun's and beyond and then turn around. There was one little park in South Knoxville called Hastie Park that just kind of sat there for years. Then there was Ijams Nature Center, obviously. If you looked at the map, there was huge potential to connect all that together in one giant loop."

A few years later, a new nonprofit organization called the Legacy Parks Foundation, led by director Carol Evans, started building trails along the south side of the Tennessee River to connect three of the city's Civil War sites. The two projects eventually converged; the result, after negotiations with private property owners and land managers, a tireless campaign of fund-raising, and thousands of hours of volunteer labor, was the Urban Wilderness, a 1,000-acre superpark that connects 10 city parks, Ijams, the Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area, and the Will Skelton Greenway. There are more than 40 miles of dirt trails for hiking, trail running, and mountain biking, including the monumental 12.5-mile main South Loop, which opened in early 2012.

Just a few miles down river, and on the opposite bank, the Outdoor Adventure Center at Volunteer Landing, which opened last year, serves several purposes: the Legacy Parks offices are upstairs; downstairs, you can rent a canoe or kayak, meet up with weekly paddleboard groups, or take a fly-fishing class. You can even rent out meeting space for your outdoor club.

"As somebody who spends a fair amount of time traveling throughout the Southeast, that Outdoor Adventure Center is really fantastic," says Gail Kirkland, regional director for REI's South district. "It's a launching point for so many folks to get out and recreate. … Location-wise, right on the Tennessee River, you can go on a run from there, you can paddle from there, you can cycle from there. It's just wonderful to have that central meeting place, and it's unique for the Southeast. And something y'all should certainly be proud of."

An important thing about the Urban Wilderness and the Adventure Center: Both were, in some way, large-scale repurposing projects, reinterpretations of existing geography and architecture. The Urban Wilderness was less about building a new park from the ground up than stitching together parts that were already there. Raising money, acquiring property, and building trails were herculean tasks, but the main goal was connection, not construction.

"We used existing parks and pieces of land that were otherwise not being used to their highest and best use," Hann says. "Some of them were tax-defunct. A lot of them were remnant parcels from subdivisions of a bygone era. We've taken it and added it to the park, and it's an asset now as opposed to a liability."

The sleek brick-and-glass building that now houses the Adventure Center, too, was a remnant, left over from the city's lackluster early-'90s redevelopment of the north riverfront. The project was supposed to include residential, retail, and office space; it's been woefully underused for most of two decades.

It's like Knoxville has finally recognized something valuable that it's had all along.

"I think we knew it, we just didn't know how to speak about it," Evans says. "It's not like we invented all this stuff. We just tried to help you look at it differently. So rather than saying 10 city parks, let's say the Urban Wilderness. Let's connect and brand it. You have to tell people why something is important or relevant or what it means, and I think that's what we're doing, and what others are doing—let's really brand this. It's not smoke and mirrors, because we really have it, but let's tell people about it, make it easy to understand and find information about it, and really market it as an amenity, not just as 10 parks."

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Recreational Equipment Inc., or REI, was founded in Seattle in 1938. The company is a private cooperative, owned by customers who pay $20 for a lifetime membership in return for an annual dividend and the right to vote for REI's board of directors. Individual stores—there are 129 in 32 states—offer classes, gear rentals and used-gear sales, and meeting places for local clubs. They even provide money to local nonprofits—the Legacy Parks Foundation has already received a $10,000 grant from REI for the Urban Wilderness.

But REI is not just an oversized member-owned community center; it's one of the biggest outdoor-sports retailers in the country, with almost $2 billion in sales in 2009. An REI store here, set to open near the intersection of Papermill Drive and Kingston Pike next fall, is another sign that Knoxville is coming of age as an outdoor-adventure destination. (The first REI store in Tennessee was in Nashville, so it's a rare case of Knoxville beating out Chattanooga.)

"I live in Atlanta, so I've had my eye on Knoxville for a long time," Kirkland, REI's regional director for the South, says. "We've been looking pretty seriously there for the last couple of years. We don't tend to go in quickly. We take our time in terms of making sure that we're growing appropriately, that the timing is right, that the membership and recreation opportunity is there."

The immediate economic impact of REI is pretty clear—local construction, local jobs, local sales and property taxes. Other economic benefits of adventure sports are equally plain: Visit Knoxville estimates that Checkpoint Tracker participants will spend about $148,000 this weekend; the dozens of runners who gather for the Bearden Beer Market's weekly group runs spend money there on beer; money from paddleboard rentals at the Adventure Center from Billy Lush Paddle Sports goes straight to a local company.

But it's harder to measure the full benefit of all this activity. Will REI's big-box presence on Kingston Pike negatively affect local and regional retailers like River Sports Outfitters, Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, and Uncle Lem's Outfitters? Will coverage of Checkpoint Tracker lure tourists to Knoxville's wilderness? Will the businesses associated with outdoor recreation, like craft brewers, gear shops, river and trail guides, and boutique hotels follow in the wake of all this attention? Will parks and trails attract new residents and new businesses that want to keep their employees happy? What will the ultimate ripple effects be?

"If you start to look at different areas of economic impact, we know tourism and travel," Evans says. "But when you look at amenities that people request—I just found some new real-estate statistics that show people are willing to pay $9,000 more to live near a bike path. It's one of the top 28 factors in how you choose where to live. We know that it impacts where people want to live, we know it impacts why people choose locations for their businesses. CEOs will say it's in the top three in terms of quality of life."

Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville, acknowledges that tracking the specific reasons for why people travel anywhere is complicated.

"How do you quantify how many people came to Knoxville for a weekend getaway just to hike the trails or ride a mountain bike? That's going to take us a bit to get our arms around."

One of the most jaw-dropping facts about the Urban Wilderness project comes from Hann, who has kept track of land purchases near the park. It may not have much statistical value, but it's anecdotal dynamite.

"When it became common knowledge that we were going to do this, I was on a land-hunt mission," he says. "I would track down areas of connections and how to get from point A to point B, so I was in pretty close contact with landowners. People would come to me and ask, ‘Hey, do you know where a piece of property's for sale that's near where these trails are going to be? I want to be on the trail, near the park.' I'd point people in the right direction."

He says his information is accurate through the end of August. "In about three years, there have been about $5.7 million dollars in residential-property transfers for people who have volunteered this information to me. They say the number-one factor for purchasing this home near this trail or near this park was because of the Urban Wilderness. That's saying something."

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Overall, the outdoor-sports industry is booming. A 2012 industry study reported that the "outdoor-recreation economy" was worth $646 billion in direct consumer spending and was responsible for 6.1 million American jobs. Cities across the country are cashing in on adventure tourism and outdoor sports. Lists like Outside magazine's annual round-up of best towns for outdoors enthusiasts (Chattanooga won in 2011) and best outdoors-related workplaces are both a barometer of current trends and competitive civic marketing.

So Knoxville's not exactly unique. Nearby cities like Chattanooga, Greenville, S.C., and Asheville regularly top regional and national lists for outdoors destinations. Even Nashville got an honorable mention in Outside in 2012 as one of the country's best river towns.

Asheville's adventure bona fides are well-established; a true mountain town, it offers all kinds of sports in and around downtown, with skiing and snowboarding in the winter, whitewater, and lots of beer and music. Chattanooga's emergence as a national destination has been just as rapid as Knoxville's, and, in some respects, more successful. The city has better access to climbing and whitewater than Knoxville, and its StumpJump 50k trail race, the centerpiece of the annual RiverRocks outdoor festival, is internationally renowned. Chattanooga has even landed an official Ironman triathlon, scheduled for September 2014.

To put Knoxville's new adventure scene in perspective, then: Knoxville's growth coincides exactly with similar growth in other locations. And the steep upward trajectory of the last two years can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that we started so far behind places like Asheville, Madison, Wis., and mountain towns out west. Keeping the same kind of momentum that we've had for the last couple of years will be difficult.

But Knoxville insiders think they have particular advantages. The proximity of the Urban Wilderness to downtown is unusual—tourists and downtown residents can find serious adventure without driving anywhere. Especially important, Evans says, is that Knoxville's outdoor experience is so closely related to other center-city redevelopment—downtown, nearby neighborhoods, South Knoxville, and the South Knox Waterfront—and that developers and planners are now taking recreation into account as a legitimate civic enterprise.

"We're connecting the dots," Evans says. "We're not seeing recreation as an extra. We're not looking at parks as the fluff or the frill. We see it as integrated to what we do and what we have. I think it's interesting that the South Waterfront development is being catalyzed again by the park. Suttree Landing is going to go in because they think it's important to catalyze development. They're looking at that park differently now—they're putting in the ability for people to have boat lockers over there. They're recognizing lifestyle attributes and not just putting in a ballfield or greenspace or those sorts of things."

The Legacy Parks agenda for 2014 includes projects that refine and expand on what the organization has already done. Plans include an equestrian trail in East Knox County that will connect to House Mountain, improving access on the Upper Holston River for fishermen and paddlers, and a large-scale project to link wildlife refuges along the Tennessee River—including Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, which Gov. Bill Haslam recently announced will become a state park next year.

"What we viewed as remnant and undesirable is now seen as an asset, which I think is the neatest thing about this," she says. "So it's not incompatible with anything. It's not incompatible with development, it's not incompatible with neighborhoods. It's not an either/or, it's an and."

That integration, Hann says, is key. It adds cultural and economic variety and complements Knoxville's downtown development efforts rather than competing with them.

"I've been to places like Sedona, Moab, Zion, some of the hot spots, the Grand Canyon," he says. "The coolest thing about this project is that this is in concert with our urban area. It's not like you're driving to the middle of nowhere to ride a 50-mile trail system or to run or recreate. We've got such a really vibrant urban scene. This isn't the main attraction of our community, which is a good thing—it's something else. We've got an awesome downtown, we've got a great food culture, great bar culture, music here is amazing. And this is icing on the cake. The whole Urban Wilderness just coexists so perfectly with the neighborhoods and the surroundings."