Even when it's all wet, Carter County still a draw

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com
Earlier this week, a local weather forecaster came on the radio to give the day's forecast: "Partly cloudy with a chance of scattered showers now through October ..."
No use trying to gloss over the fact that it was going to be another "Dog Day" afternoon. It's enough to drive a person to distraction.
Except for Thursday and a sprinkle of days since spring, tourists visiting the area easily could have returned home with the impression that Carter County was "all wet." However, that's not necessarily the case, according to Larry Gobble, director of Tourism for the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce.
Gobble said Thursday that he won't have official figures until the end of August when he sees the revenues come in, but, "from all indications, things are running along pretty good."
The real "ticker tape," he said, is whether the revenues are maintaining or whether they're dropping off slightly. He believes area tourism remains steady and may be just slightly ahead of last year.
Gobble said he recently spoke with local marina owners about the tourist season "and they're doing pretty well. It's not slowing the trout fishermen down.
"We're still getting a steady traffic flow through here. Rainy days, we tend to get more," he said, with tourists looking for new ground to explore. "It's like, 'We figured this one out; we'll go see what else they've got to do.'
"Everybody tells me you still can't get into Roan Mountain in an RV slot or a camp slot unless you wait a couple of days, so that's a good indication," Gobble said.
It is a busy time at Roan Mountain State Park, according to Glenn Hatfield, park superintendent. "Our business is booming. The only thing the rain hurt, the campground was a little bit slow in filling up this year. It was about eight to 10 days later filling up than what it did in the past."
Come rain or shine, waiting around for a campsite is nothing new at the park, especially toward the latter part of the week, according to Hatfield.
"We do not reserve camp spaces. It's first-come, first-served. I was over there this morning and there were three cars in line, either waiting for a site or a particular site. The weather really has not hurt us. The only thing that the rain will have an ill effect on is the pool.
"But if the rain lasts for a long time, then it will start having an ill effect on camping, because there's nothing more miserable than camping in the rain."
Before the end of the year, the park should have another attraction, according to Hatfield. The design phase of the museum to be located inside the visitors center is nearly complete.
"Around the first of August, the state will review the design for the exhibits and approve it, and then it will go out to bid. By the end of December this year, we are supposed to have all of the exhibits in place in the visitors center," he said.
One area of the park frequented by tourists is the Miller Homeplace, according to Hatfield. "The picture of the house and barn has been in more magazines in the last seven or eight years than any other thing I know of. I was in Wal-Mart one day, over a year ago, and there was a calendar of old barns. Each month had an old barn, and they were from all over the United States. One page I turned to, there it was: The barn up on Strawberry Mountain here in the park."
Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area apparently has not fared as well during the continual downpours this tourist season. Dancing and storytelling was moved indoors for the annual June Indian festival, while visitors waited for the clouds to break and then tiptoed around in the mud to visit vendor booths outdoors.
Johnnie Pilk, secretary at Sycamore Shoals, said the rain definitely has had an impact. "We don't have near the visitors. Some of them come in because it's raining and they can see the museum, the artwork, the video, and stuff like that.
"Some that have planned to come and do picnics, like small family get-togethers, have canceled. The larger ones have been renting the picnic shelters. So it's hurt and helped us both."
Pilk said the state's official outdoor drama, "The Wataugans," was rained out at intermission on the first night of performance, last Thursday. "They got the whole show in Friday, and then they got rained out totally on Saturday.
"Tonight is supposed to be pretty, so maybe we'll have a good turnout," Pilk said Thursday. "Sen. [Rusty] Crowe and Rep. [Jerome] Cochran are going to be in the play tonight. They're going to be playing like co-owners of the Transylvania Company, which is Judge Henderson's company."
Gobble said the Chamber Visioning Committee is continuing to look at what can be done "to enhance and hopefully create, through some small businesses, more opportunities for people in Carter County to get into the tourism trade.
Last Tuesday night, in follow-up to the committee's "Take Stock in Your Community" survey, the group hosted its first community forum in Roan Mountain. "It went quite well actually," he said. "We were quite pleased with the suggestions and comments that came out of Roan Mountain. They came up with some good ones."
In an effort to draw more visitors, and hopefully more revenue, Gobble on Thursday completed an update of Elizabethton/Carter County listings for the 2004 Tennessee Vacation Guide. "I've been working on it about two weeks, putting everything I can think of in Carter County to go in it," he said.
Also, the Tennessee Film Commission is looking at locations for a movie and he has been busy searching through the community to see if there might be a spot matching the commission's specifications.
"What it looks like they plan to do is a landslide, and the landslide needs to fall down into a ravine," he said. The ideal spot would have a tunnel over a roadway, but, "they said if it was the right location, they could fabricate a tunnel over the roadway. So we're just taking a look at that and seeing if there's anything we can do to get in on it."