This week, three national leaders came to Chattanooga to participate in meetings on how to better connect the city with cycling routes, which would give tourists another reason to visit the Scenic City and bolster the local economy.
"Why not Chattanooga as the No. 1 cycling destination in America?" asked Marianne Fowler with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. "Why not Tennessee as the No. 1 biking destination? You've got such possibilities here."
Fowler, along with Jim Sayer, executive director of the Adventure Cycling Association, and Katherine Kraft, coalition director of America Walks, came to Chattanooga on the invitation of BikeToursDirect President Jim Johnson, who is also a cycling advocate.
BikeToursDirect is a locally based company that represents nearly 100 local bike tour operators around the world, according to Nooga.com archives.
Through the BikeToursDirect website, clients can book bike tours in places such as France, Italy, Holland, Cambodia, Vietnam and Nepal.
BikeToursDirect financially supported the visitors' trip.
The leaders participated in public discussions, as well as meetings with government leaders.
"Chattanooga could be a real bike tourism place, just the same way it is a place for other outdoor activities," Johnson said.
He also said that he was recently reflecting on all the change that has happened in Chattanooga. He said change can seem daunting because it feels like it takes so much time and money, but that hasn't stopped other progress in the city.
"If you don't start, it will never happen," he said.
Silver Comet Connector
Leaders discussed the TAG Line/Silver Comet Connector Trail project.
Last year, Chattanooga was named the first trail town along the Great Eastern Trail from New York to Alabama, and the city’s place on the route would reinforce Chattanooga’s position as a trail town destination, officials said.
A connector trail from Chattanooga to the Silver Comet Trail outside of Atlanta would give Chattanoogans access to nearly 200 miles of asphalt trails.
Officials are considering several possible routes, including one that would connect with the Riverwalk extension in St. Elmo, which would become the gateway to the Silver Comet Connector.
The trail would travel through North Georgia cities Flintstone, Chickamauga, Lafayette, Summerville and Rome, connecting to the Silver Comet in Cedartown.
Along the way, there could be spurs to the Chickamauga Battlefield and Mountain Cove Farms, both of which are popular cycling destinations.
Sayer, Fowler and Kraft also discussed the possibility of Chattanooga being a regional hub for the U.S. Bicycle Route System, which is a developing national network of bicycle routes that links urban, suburban and rural areas, and the Adventure Cycling Route Network, which is a link of 40,000 miles of rural and low-traffic bicycling routes through some of the most scenic and historically significant places in North America.
In addition to the recreational opportunities these possibilities would spur, leaders said there are significant economic, health and tourism benefits.
At a Tuesday morning meeting at The Public Library, Kraft discussed the health benefits of walking and the need for infrastructure and connectivity, which impacts the way people walk.
"If you have complete streets and you build the streets to be safe for everyone, you're more likely to get people out walking," she said. "Public transit gets more people walking. If you make a place safe for pedestrians and cyclists, it's going to be safe for motorists."
She said that the surgeon general is expected to release a report and call to action this summer about the benefits of walking, and she called on Chattanooga leaders to capitalize on that.
"As you get ready for the next generation of infrastructure development, take advantage of the surgeon general's call to action," she said. "Use the recommendations that will be in that report—use it to help make your case to the public and to your health care industry."
Sayer said that active and adventure travel are the fastest-growing segments of the world's tourism market and that Chattanooga leaders have a huge opportunity to tap into that.
He spoke about his experience riding the Riverwalk and said he loved the area's natural beauty and history.
"Bike tourism is on the rise because of experiences like this," he said, referencing his rides in the area.
He also said that bike tourists typically spend more money than other tourists because they carry fewer items with them and end up buying more things.
Philip Grymes, executive director of Outdoor Chattanooga—which, along with other local organizations, hosted the visitors—said that the national leaders touched on aspects of cycling that haven't been addressed locally.
The city is hosting an upcoming pro-cycling event, which has its own tourism and economic impacts.
And local officials have also recently implemented a Bike Share Program, among other things.
But this week's events were focused on different topics, he said.
"It's hard to believe there is an area of cycling we haven't really examined," he said. "The focus of this group was more about literally putting Chattanooga on the national cycling map—not for events—but more for creating routes for individuals and for bike tours. It's about bolstering that year-round bicycling tourism in ways I don't think people really think about."