We planned our August camping trip to Tanglewood Park in Winston-Salem, N.C., six weeks in advance, and when I called to reserve our campsite, there were only two spaces available.
This past Labor Day, my brother-in-law Jerry was looking for a campsite about two weeks in advance, preferably less than an hour away. There were two campsites available in the whole region, both at the Clinch River Campground near Dungannon, and Jerry snatched them both up for himself and his son.
In March, I called to reserve our favorite little lakefront campsite near Dandridge on the far west end of Cherokee Lake, and that campground was already almost completely booked solid through August.
My dad and his sister own adjoining property beside a small man-made lake in northeastern Mississippi, and if I was a younger man, I’d be trying to talk them into letting me build a campground there. In this case the old cliche is true. If you build it they will come.
Which brings me to this month’s sermon
As the new Hawkins County Commission prepares to hold its first meeting Monday (Sept. 24), I’d like to give commissioners something to think about.
According to a recent state report, tourism is Tennessee’s No. 2 industry (behind agriculture), accounting for $1.8 billion in state and local sales tax revenue in 2017, an increase of 7.6 percent from 2016. Visitors also made $20.7 billion in direct travel expenditures (up 6.3 percent from 2016), and every county in Tennessee had more than $1 million in tourism spending.
Hawkins County has quite a bit of history and natural beauty that already attracts visitors. But I think there’s a lot of untapped potential, and I’ve got a few ideas that I’ve been keeping to myself for a long, long time.
And, as you might have guessed, one of them pertains to camping.
Laurel Run Campground
Church Hill is developing a 65-acre park off Holliston Mills Road along the Holston River which will feature ballfields, stadiums, playgrounds, walking trails and at the very end — the very last item on the construction to-do list — is a small riverfront campground.
It’s an amenity that I wholeheartedly approve, but it might take 20 years to reach that point.
Meanwhile, Laurel Run Park just south of Church Hill along the Holston River already has a huge piece of flat, unused property on the west end near the boat ramp that could easily be developed into a county-owned campground.
In my opinion, and based on my observations, if Hawkins County developed Laurel Run Park’s vacant property west of the baseball diamond into a campground, maybe 40-50 campsites, it would be booked solid from May through October.
It would require an investment. You’ve got to run water, electric and septic to every campsite, and make it look pretty with some shade trees and landscaping. I’d put a fishing dock on the Holston River, improve the boat ramp, and in a perfect world, maybe even install a swimming pool.
But even without the pool, look what the park offers: boating, fishing, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, a playground, the creek, tennis and basketball courts, disc golf and the waterfalls. People tube downriver from Derrick Park in Church Hill to Riverfront Park in Surgoinsville and float right past Laurel Run Park. It looks like a lot of fun.
In fact, I’d get rid of the baseball diamond. No one ever uses it. That would be a good place to put a dog park instead.
But, regardless of what amenities you offer, most people go camping just to get away, enjoy some peace and quiet and cook out. Laurel Run Park would be just what they’re looking for.
The Appalachian Marathon
This is an idea I’ve been percolating for more than 20 years, since the first time I drove through Allandale and noticed that green sign on the side of 11-W just before you get to the Mount Carmel city line indicating Rogersville is exactly 26 miles away.
The first thing I thought of at that moment was, “Wow, that’s the exact same distance as a marathon.” Well, technically a marathon is 26.219 miles, but it’s still pretty close.
If you have ever had the misfortune of being stuck somewhere watching TV while a marathon is on, you know that those events attract thousands of runners. And I can’t imagine a more perfect route for a marathon than the Holston Valley along the scenic, rolling hills of Highway 11-W between Rogersville and Kingsport.
And, with the four-lane highway, you can move traffic over onto one side, with one lane for each direction of traffic, and have the runners on the other two lanes, with police officers directing traffic at the intersections so no-one gets run over.
It’s a crazy idea, but it just might be crazy enough to work.
St. Marks Theater
This might be more of a Rogersville thing than a County Commission thing, but what downtown Rogersville tourism really needs more than anything is a live theater venue.
It’s a shame that they tore down the old Roxy Theater next door to the Hale Springs Inn because they could really use that theater to attract people downtown today.
But the historic St. Marks Presbyterian Church, which is located one block from Main Street and an easy, casual stroll from the Hale Springs Inn, might be just as good.
There’s already a grant in place to make structural repairs to the walls and fix the front brick facade on the 106-year-old building.
When they get into the actual interior renovation design, however, I think they need to shoot for creating a small, live stage venue, like a mini Barter Theater.
In fact, I’d be calling Barter and asking them: How would you like to send some of your young apprentice actors to Rogersville and create a little Barter Theater satellite location?
Either that or be in touch with our local colleges and universities and see if they want to send their students to Rogersville to put on plays. And, of course, it would be great for our local theater groups, musicians and student performers.
If you can get 100-150 additional people coming to downtown Rogersville for dinner and a show three or four times a week, that would be a big boon for the local economy.
I’ve always been an idea man
I’ve got a few smaller suggestions as well.
For example, the county should get on board with Hope Community Church and try to grow the Hawkins County Fair. Maybe see if there’s some grant money out there to help them out.
They also need to do something with the historic Kenner House in Rogersville, which is maintained in a 50/50 deal between Rogersville and the county. First they need to renovate the 182-year-old house. Then maybe turn it into a Battle of Big Creek Civil War museum (or interpretive center), and/or a community center, and/or a reading/storytelling venue for entertaining children. Don’t just let it sit there and rot.
And we need more festivals in Hawkins County. Rogersville does pretty well, but Mount Carmel, Bulls Gap, Surgoinsville and Church Hill need to step up their game. Create fun events that draw people into your town. That’s grassroots tourism.
Anyway, those are my big ideas. I've always been an idea man. Great at coming up with ideas. Not so great at putting them into action. That’s why I bought a camper. So I could sit somewhere in the shade and think up work for other people to do.
Jeff Bobo covers Hawkins County for the Times News. Email him at email@example.com.