What one councilman learned on his summer vacation

August 21, 1999

Gatlinburg, Tennessee's transformation into a tourist mecca began way back in the 1950s, when local business people decided that the loggers who periodically came into the area to cut trees in the surrounding mountains needed better sleeping quarters.

They began by building a couple of motels and a general store. Forty years later, the town has more motel rooms (8,960) than permanent residents (3,816) and can accommodate 35,000 visitors a night, including, during one recent week, Hagerstown Councilman J. Wallace McClure.

McClure, owner of McClure's Piano Shop and 'Round Town Movers, says he never goes on vacation without picking up a few ideas he feels Hagerstown could use to draw some tourists of its own.

Thinking like a council member doesn't detract from his time away form Hagerstown at all, McClure said.

"It actually enhances the experience, because the whole time away, I'm wondering about their council people, and how they're handling all these things."


He talks to people at his vacation destination, he makes lists and when he comes home, he shares his perceptions.

This latest batch of ideas couldn't come at a better time, because if Dennis Frye and the Antietam Creek Coalition are successful in their effort to put a Civil War museum downtown, the whole city, like it or not, will have to change to accommodate the visitors who will come here.

In Gatlinburg, McClure said he learned that no one attraction will be sufficient to entertain a family. If Civil War buffs come here to see the museum and perhaps the Antietam Battlefield, there's also got to be something children can enjoy. In Gatlinburg, it's Dollywod, country singer Dolly Parton's makeover of an amusement park in nearby Pigeon Forge.

Dollywood isn't the only place you can ride in Gatlinburg. On-street parking downtown has been eliminated, so you can drive through, look around and then park in a shuttle lot, where a trolley that cost 25 cents a ride will take you wherever you want to go.

The first thing you notice on your trolley ride is how clean the streets are, McClure said. There's no trash and no tall weeds growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk. As in Hagerstown, there are square plots that have been cut out of the sidewalks to plant trees, but instead of a pile of cigarette butts at the base of those trees, there are colorful flower beds.

So who keeps those streets so clean?

Vicki Hodge, member services director of the Gatlinburg chamber, says that the city does have a trash removal service, but that most sidewalk clean-up is done by business owners who are proud of their town. (Hodge said that trash has to be kept in bear-proof containers, because the big animals slip out of the mountains occasionally to look for food.)

Another thing McClure noticed was that there seemed to be very little residential housing downtown, something he's advocated eliminating in the past in Hagerstown's center city.

That's a correct perception, Hodge said, noting that most people who work in town live outside, in small clusters of homes off the side roads and up in the mountains.

Speaking of mountains, Gatlinburg has the good fortune to be nestled alongside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a 500,000-acre facility visited by more than 9 million people each year. There's a ride in the park, McClure said, that takes passengers way up on the mountain for a look at the valley below.

"I think people enjoy getting up in high places and getting a bird's eye view of things," McClure said, adding that he felt that a rooftop restaurant, perhaps on top of the Alexander House, might draw people in.

But though McClure listed a slew of attractions in Gatlinburg - everything from small shops to big theatres run by country music stars - it was the people who who worked there who made an impression.

"They recognize that they are a tourist mecca and everybody down there was geared to that," McClure said, adding that workers tended to be older people who gave the impression that they really cared about visitors, as opposed to teens who just go through the motions.

Other things McClure noticed: An absence of taverns and X-rated video parlors and store windows so brightly lit that the street lights seemed irrelevant.

Hodge said that Gatlinburg makes an effort to be a four-season resort, counting on fall color to draw people in autumn and special events at other times - the nation's first July 4 parade that begins a minute after midnight each year and a winter-fest for which business owners string up more than a million lights.

Are these activities planned by the chamber, a promotional agency or someone else?

It depends, Hodge said. A lot of what happens at the Convention Center is planned there, but other groups sponsor other activities, she said, referring me to the city's web site, for a listing.

Hodge described her town as a village nestled between two mountains, saying that as much as she enjoys going away on vacation, she's always glad to come back.

Now for the serious part: If the proposal to put a Civil War Museum in Hagerstown is successful, making money off tourism will mean more than just opening a shop. It will mean doing what Gatlinburg has done - training staffers to act as if they care about visitors and resolving to do everything first class. As McClure knows, that will mean rooting out ho-hum, go-cheap attitudes that are more tightly anchored than any weed in a Hagerstown sidewalk.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of the Herald-Mail

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