The Business of the Great Outdoors

By Drake Farmer

If you love the outdoors, chances are that Chattanooga is on your radar. Our region boasts plenty of opportunities for residents and visitors alike to explore and enjoy getting outside, and Chattanooga has become synonymous with outdoor recreation in recent years.

We’ve been voted Outside Magazine’s Best Town Ever twice and we’ve hosted a handful of Ironman triathlon races traversing our rivers, mountains and roads by swimming, biking and running. The Ironman saga continues for Chattanooga as we host the 70.3 World Championship this September.

A U.S. Travel Association study shows that visitors lured by our outdoor attractions, sporting events, conventions and more spent more than $1 billion in Hamilton County in 2015.

“As a natural attraction, we see interest from travelers looking for authentic outdoor experiences,” says Rock City President & COO Susan Harris. “When guests are here for other reasons like Ironman, climbing, marathons and such, we’re often on their list to visit.”

A quick glance around reveals an array of options for outdoor adventure in our region: the mountains that surround Chattanooga are ripe with trails and crags for hiking and climbing, which brought nearly $7 million to Hamilton County in 2015-16, according to an economic impact report by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The Tennessee River invites paddling and plays host to a phenomenal Riverwalk, and our rivers and creeks give rise to fishing and canoeing. And all of this lies within an hour of our innovative downtown.

Many Chattanooga businesses thrive on our status as an outdoor destination. Whether you’re unwinding at a CFC game, playing tourist at Rock City or the Tennessee Aquarium, or trying your hand at stand-up paddle boarding, you’re supporting the steady, sustainable growth of our local economy.

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Aside from the numerous opportunities for outdoor fun nestled in Chattanooga’s surrounding rivers and mountains, a wide range of businesses help you get outside without leaving city limits. The Chattanooga Football Club (CFC) offers one such outdoor attraction ­– soccer – which has recently experienced a boom in popularity. The 2014 Scenic City Cup, hosted by CFC Academy and four other recreational soccer associations (Redoubt, North River, East Ridge and Middle Valley), poured $500,000 into Chattanooga’s economy, and CFC hasn’t slowed down since. In 2015, CFC hosted the U.S. Women’s National Team, and in February hosted both the U.S. Men's National Team as well as Major League Soccer's newest franchise, Atlanta United.

Sean McDaniel, CFC’s general manager, attributes the company’s success to its partners, fans and the town it calls home.

“We’re beneficiaries of an economic influx of new citizens as well as longtime citizens who have re-emerged because they see great things happening in their hometown. Our fan base is also a fan base of Chattanooga,” McDaniel says. “Chattanooga had all the right ingredients for a successful soccer club: economic growth, especially Volkswagen – our flagship sponsor, and the growth of new cultures and ideas in our city. And it has resulted in some awesome summer Saturday nights.”

CFC’s open-air, festival-style matches, held at Southside’s Finley Stadium, are a bit of pedaling away from Chattanooga’s Riverwalk.  

Speaking of pedaling, in 2012, Bike Chattanooga launched a city-wide bike share business to serve as a direct connection between people and the outdoors. Since then, Bike Chattanooga bicycles have done just that, serving as a source of both transportation and recreation. Bike Chattanooga corporate partnerships help Chattanoogans get outside.

In April, people took more than 7,000 Bike Chattanooga trips, the second busiest month since launch, says Ben Taylor, Assistant Transportation Engineer for the Chattanooga Department of Transportation. Taylor suggests that this is due, in part, to growth and new businesses in Chattanooga.

“The more infrastructure the city builds, the more people come out and ride,” he says. “We have two user groups: people who just want to exercise, and the best place to do that is the Riverwalk, and people biking to work or running errands. As the Riverwalk expands, it can be used more for transportation as well.”

Chattanooga’s Riverwalk, a 13-mile paved trail winding along the Tennessee River, lets people experience the river up close. For some businesses, the river is a valuable resource.

Nate Wilson, owner and captain of a pedal-powered aquatic cycleboat, sees much potential in the river.

“Our one-hour tours at the beginning of the day are for tourists,” Wilson says. “In the afternoons, we host a lot of corporate team-building outings.” In fact, your Chamber of Commerce staff sneak-previewed the cycleboat as a team last year.

In addition to team-building, Wilson offers summer outings during the Riverbend festival and launches a partnership with Improv Chattanooga to offer murder mystery shows on the river. 

While many Chattanooga businesses draw life from the Tennessee River, many also volunteer time, seeing the importance of preserving the natural resources we enjoy.

When the world’s second largest freshwater aquarium opened in Chattanooga in 1992, the city’s outdoor industry was a fraction of what it is today. Constructed to help boost Chattanooga’s economic development, the Tennessee Aquarium brings in $115 million annually, according to an analysis by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sustainable Business and Development. This year, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute partners with the Thrive Regional Partnership and the Southeast Tennessee Development District to promote the benefits of minimizing ecological impact on our community. A major component of this project is the unveiling of Hydro LIT, a water quality handbook of proposals for how southeastern developers can maximize their natural resource preservation efforts.

In February, a small group of paddlers involved with L2 Outside, Market Street’s one-stop shop for outdoor watersport rentals, began clearing the 100-mile stretch of creek that runs from Trenton, GA, to downtown Chattanooga.

“These natural resources are some of the strongest assets our region has to offer,” says Dirk Unkle, L2 Outside’s co-founder and co-owner. “That’s why we volunteer to keep our waterways clean and preserved.”

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Chattanooga’s outdoors industry thrives and shows no signs of slowing down. Much of this growth relies on the businesses that call Chattanooga home.

“It would be hard to imagine our business thriving in another city,” Unkle says. “Chattanooga both understands and embraces the outdoor spirit. We’re a city full of explorers and adventure seekers.”