At a recent production of the Cumberland County Playhouse’s Matilda, Producing Director Bryce McDonald noticed a large group of young people in attendance.
“It was two Girl Scout troops from Ohio,” McDonald said. “They got up early and took a bus down. They planned to eat, hang out at the park and make a day of it here in Cumberland County.”
That one bus trip brought 55 people to the community.
That’s not unusual for the Playhouse, which welcomes thousands of visitors each year from across the state and the country. As guests visit the Playhouse, they also make an impact on Cumberland County’s tourist revenue.
The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development reported last week Cumberland County recorded $127.8 million in tourist spending in 2018. That’s up 5.15% from 2017 when the county recorded $121.54 million.
Statewide tourist spending topped $22 billion, the report found.
McDonald sees the impact of tourism on the Playhouse’s productions. Last year, the theater had 86,000 ticketed visits, and 45,000 of those visits were from people who live outside the county and state. During the seven-week run of “Bright Star,” the audience represented 30 of the 50 states, from California to New York.
“And they certainly spend some tourist money in our community if they came that far to see us,” McDonald said.
Ashley DeRossett, vice president of the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce, said many tourists are drawn to the area’s outdoor recreational opportunities, like the many state parks in the region, historic sites and the culture of the community, like the Playhouse and sites along the Tennessee Music Pathways. Many visitors have a timeshare at area resort communities and spend a week in Cumberland County each visit.
“They’re looking for something to do,” DeRossett said.
Whether they stop by the Chamber office on Main St., or the Visitor Center off Cook Rd., pick up brochures at the many welcome centers or go online, visitors can find something to fit their interest.
Music has become a popular tourist draw. The state launched its Soundtrack of America campaign in the last several years and the Tennessee Music Pathways program. Cumberland County has three Music Pathways sites: The Palace Theatre, the Playhouse and Grinder House Coffee.
Asa Reese, who owns the Grinder House with Angela Chastain, said the business has seen a steady increase in customers since they took over in 2017. They average about 350 customers a day in their Main St. coffee shop and restaurant.
Reese has been making use of resources available from the state tourism department, like websites and seminars on social media advertising and website search engine optimization. They’ve also been working to provide good service and good food for their customers and the unique shop has even attracted a reality show filming the lead planning her wedding at a coffee shop.
Part of the business’ draw is its weekly singer-songwriter showcases, “In the House.” Grinder House has a reputation for hosting up-and-coming artists. Thanks to a weekly internet broadcast, listeners around the world listen in on a Friday night in Crossville. The show is also rebroadcast in New York, Muscle Shoals and other stations.
These showcases and the intimate listening room vibe helped Grinder House make the cut for the first round of the Tennessee Music Pathway designation.
“It’s a feather in our cap,” Reese said.
The state is working on suggest road trips utilizing the pathways. When it does, Crossville will be at the crossroads for tour groups traveling from Nashville to Chattanooga and Knoxville.
“They have to pass right by us to get back to Nashville,” Reese said.
He believes Crossville has the talent and venues necessary to become a music destination. Like Nashville, he said, without the “Las Vegas” feel.
“Our community can decide where to start and where we want to go,” he said, encouraging community leaders to develop a comprehensive strategy to encourage tourism. “If you build it, people will come,” he said.
Thanks to the support of the state and others, Reese believes it won’t be difficult to achieve.
“We’re the perfect spot for a day trip,” he said. “
In addition to trying to draw visitors from outside the state, businesses are also looking to the Upper Cumberland region and nearby areas.
“You’d be surprised how many don’t know what we have to offer,” DeRossett said.
The Chamber participates in the Upper Cumberland Stay and Play Expo held in Cookeville where they promote Cumberland County attractions and events.
Christy Dolinich, development director at the Playhouse, is working with regional tours to offers a dinner-and-show combo in the county.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “Surrounding areas are looking at us as a hot spot.”
Stonehaus Winery and Chestnut Hill Winery both take part in the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail, which encourages regional tourism.
The Chamber sponsors the two Civil War Trail markers — one marking a skirmish in Pleasant Hill and the other at the Civil War memorial on Main St.
“As that continues to be heavily promoted across the country, it’s important that we keep our markers,” she said.
Cumberland County has points along the Pie in the Sky and Promiseland tourism trails developed by the state.
There is also an adventure tourism district to promote entrepreneurial ventures.
“If a tourism business is created in that district, they can qualify for tax credits if they meet certain investment and employment requirements,” DeRossett explained.
The challenge has been the high level of employment and investment required.
“It’s hard for a start-up business,” she said.
Tourism spending supports local businesses and jobs, with more than 1,000 people earning a payroll of $29.9 million employed in tourist-related positions in Cumberland County.
“I think a lot of people are unaware that many people work in tourism-related jobs,” DeRossett said.
Across the state, leisure and hospitality jobs make up 11.2% of non-farm employment. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported a 7.9% increase in wages with 340,688 employees statewide.
Tourism not only benefits local businesses but residents of the community. The state report estimates each household pays $712 less in state and local taxes thanks to the tax revenue generated by tourist spending.
Cumberland County collected $5.29 million in local tax revenue from tourist spending, the report found.
“The local tax receipts offset property tax increases and help provide local services,” DeRossett said.
And, many of the community’s visitors often turn into new residents. Cumberland County continues to participate in the state’s Retire Tennessee program, which promotes the community to retirees.