The City of Sweetwater’s efforts to attract tour buses is paying off with one bus scheduled to arrive on Friday, March 22 and another bus slated to come on June 22.
One of the city’s goals after the completion of the Train Depot Visitors Center downtown in 2016 was to attract tour buses, which bring dozens of visitors who eat and shop in local stores.
Chuck Whited oversees several functions for the city, including tourism, planning and codes. He spoke about the process at a recent tourism meeting.
“How do we get people to our area?” Whited said was a question city officials asked themselves. “How do we get the word out?”
Sweetwater found a way that is apparently paying early dividends.
In January, Whited sent Main Street Director Kassie Kelley-Watson to the American Bus Association Convention to meet tour bus operators in Louisville, Kentucky. Kelley-Watson’s goal was to showcase all that Sweetwater has to offer visitors. More than 3,000 people attended the event.
Her results were almost immediate with a Canadian tour group first booking for June 22. The group will stay at an interstate motel and Jacky Jones Ford has agreed to provide shuttle vans to transport the tourists downtown.
It was not long before Kelley-Watson was contacted by another bus group wanting to come much earlier than June.
On March 22, a tour bus with 55 adults from New Hampshire will be visiting downtown for a couple of hours. They plan on eating lunch at noon. The group of travelers are a quilting group who also love antiques. They will likely get pictures with the “North Star” quilt square at Sweetwater Antiques and shop downtown.
This past week, the city’s new Tourism Advisory Council met for the first time at the Dinner Bell. Mayor Doyle Lowe and City Commissioner Sam Moser oversee the council. The members are Dave Jones, Lisa McClung, Kevin Mistry, Kelley-Watson, Whited, City Recorder Jessica Morgan, Dianne Allison and Tommy Millsaps.
Jones serves as the East Tennessee Division manager for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. He praised Sweetwater’s efforts and energy to market itself.
“You have left no stone unturned,” he said.
Having the Tourism Advisory Council was a recommendation from an independent group that studied tourism for the county a couple of years ago. City Commissioner Buster “Billy” West suggested the city follow through with establishing a tourism council, which will report to the City Commission as needed.
Kelley-Watson gave a report to the new Tourism Advisory Council, and attracting tour buses is just one of the efforts to get visitors to the area. Sweetwater’s Main Street Marketplace was slated to open this weekend and plans are in the works to have the First Fridays event again when downtown businesses stay open later on the first Friday of each month. Another idea that coincides with First Fridays is Sidewalk Saturdays, when businesses will be encouraged to have sidewalk sales to help bring back the hustle and bustle downtown.
On May 3-4, Sweetwater will host its first Blues, Bluegrass & BBQ Festival downtown. Sweetwater is often a popular day trip, however, this festival is a two-day event designed to encourage people to stay overnight.
Lowe said a state baseball tournament is coming in June, which will attract very large crowds who will have lots of downtime in between games to visit area attractions, such as The Lost Sea or even Fort Loudoun State Historic Area and Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore or places like Bald River Falls.
Whited said the city’s tourism focus is not solely on downtown. He hopes to spread the wealth to all the businesses in Sweetwater.
Morgan said it is difficult to project exactly how much money the new 2.25-cent lodging tax (hotel-motel) tax the city implemented earlier this year will bring into the city. However, for budgeting purposes, she is estimating it will be $60,000 this coming fiscal year. She expects the city will spend about half of that in the coming year on promoting tourism.