Area Prospers Because a River Runs Through It
Economy of Polk County, Tenn., flourishes in anticipation of Olympic whitewater events
COPPERHILL, TENN. — FOR almost a decade, Polk County was one of the poorest in Tennessee. Double-digit unemployment, high poverty rates, and population loss defined this mountainous rural area in the southeastern tip of the state.
Now the economy of Polk County is improving dramatically, because a river runs through it.
The river is the Ocoee (pronounced ah-COH-ee), a narrow ribbon of blue-green water that tumbles over boulders and creates some of the best whitewater conditions in the Southeast. For three days in July, a frothy section of the river will serve as the course for the Olympic canoe and kayak whitewater events. Thousands of spectators will line the Ocoee's banks, and millions more around the world will watch on television. It's the kind of international exposure many communities can only dream about, and people here hope to use the opportunity to turn the area into a thriving tourist destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
"The notoriety of having an Olympic event in our backyard is going to live forever," says Hoyt Firestone, county executive of Polk County.
It marks the first time a whitewater Olympic event will take place on a natural river. The only two previous Olympic whitewater events - in Munich in 1972 and Barcelona in 1992 - were held on man-made courses.
The whitewater venue and the sport in general have already helped trigger an uptick in the economy of the region, which includes four counties in Tennessee, two in Georgia, and one in North Carolina. Polk County, which lies in the middle, has seen the biggest impact. Here, business starts were up 39 percent from 1993 to '94; local sales tax increased 21 percent the same year; and the unemployment rate dropped from 16 percent in 1991 to 6.1 percent in '94.
While these are big improvements in the short term, the area's challenge is to position itself for a future in tourism after the Olympics end. Still, the possibility of remaking the economy provides a big dose of optimism for folks who have lived through boom and bust times. Indeed, the area is one of deep contrasts. The scenery is striking: Several rivers wind along the bases of gumdrop-shaped mountains, and valleys spill across the landscape in lush green layers.
BUT it wasn't always so attractive. For decades these hills were red and barren, the result of environmental destruction that started in the 1850s when copper mining began. Trees were stripped from the land to fuel smelters, and sulfur dioxide killed plant life. In the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Tennessee Copper Company embarked on a reclamation effort to restore the lands. Today, most of the 50 square miles originally devastated are almost fully recovered.
Copper was also responsible for the economy's ups and downs. At its peak in the 1960s, copper mining employed several thousand people, mainly machinists and chemical workers who processed the ore and commanded high salaries. Their incomes helped make Polk County one of the wealthiest counties in Tennessee. But in the 1970s, cheaper imports made copper mining less profitable, and the industry began to lay off workers. The copper mines closed down in 1987, although several hundred people are still employed in the industry.
Even before the 1992 announcement that the whitewater Olympic events would be held on the Ocoee, rafting had become a popular sport here. In the 1980s, several outfitters began guided excursions and paying the TVA to release water along the once-dry riverbeds for part of the year. The industry here has flourished ever since, growing from about 5 to 8 percent annually. Last year it grew 20 percent, a rate many attribute to both the Olympic venue, which has already hosted world-class events, and the increasing interest in the sport.
"We're seeing a lot more of the general public than people who are just outdoor enthusiasts," says Chris Jelley, a head guide for the Nantahalla Outdoor Center, one of 24 whitewater outfitters here.
The Olympic course itself, upriver from where the commercial rafting starts, has drawn mostly praise from athletes. "It's a superb course," says Lynn Simpson, who won the gold medal in the women's single kayak event at the Ocoee Slalom Challenge last October. "It's better with a natural river," said Fritz Haller, who picked up a silver medal with his brother, Lecky, in the men's double canoe event.
Whitewater's economic impact is clear by the numbers of small businesses that have cropped up, including restaurants, cabins, and bed-and-breakfasts.
In Copperhill, a town of 501 on the banks of the Ocoee, three new businesses have opened: a coffee shop, a chocolate store, and a store that sells T-shirts. Olympic canoe and kayak teams from Japan, Australia, Brazil, and elsewhere have moved into town to be close to their training site.
Copperhill, once a thriving town when the copper mines were running, has struggled since the mines closed. About 75 percent of the people here are retired, and the town's elementary school closed a few years ago.
"We have no four-lane highway, and we're kind of isolated," says Janelle Kimsey, the friendly and talkative mayor. "After the mines closed, we decided tourism would have to be our industry. For so many years we sat here and thought it wasn't an industry. It's growing, but it's slow."
While the Olympic whitewater event is focusing attention on the area, many say there is much more to offer tourists. "There's several hundred thousand acres in the seven-county area we're calling the Ocoee region that can provide for hiking, camping, mountain bike riding, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, crafts," says Rick Mallory, project manager for economic development at TVA. "A lot of people didn't recognize these were things that other people who don't live here long for. Now they're starting to realize they can really package what they have."
But the window of opportunity for capitalizing on the whitewater venue and other natural resources is limited, Mr. Mallory says. "The Olympics will come and go. They have about three years after the event where people will remember."
"All the resources are here," Mr. Jelley says. "The question is, Can the local tourist industry capture those people?"