The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is primarily targeting putting people to work during the current recession. But all the projects it generates—from funding for rehabilitation in the national park system to funding jobs for young people to road projects—will indirectly impact state tourism industries.
By Mary Branham
The Smoky Mountains aren’t just good for Tennessee’s tourist economy; they’re great.
Drawing 9.3 million visitors a year, the National Park Service’s number one attraction—which sprawls the border between the Volunteer State and North Carolina—generates an economic impact of nearly $1.4 billion in Sevier County, Tenn., alone, according to Phyllis Qualls-Brooks, assistant commissioner, community and industry relations for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.
The total economic impact of tourism for Tennessee is $14.2 billion.
“You can see the slice of the pie that Sevier County has in that,” said Qualls-Brooks.
That’s because Sevier County is home to the popular entries to the Smokies: Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. The county ranks third in tourism’s economic impact in Tennessee, behind Davidson County, home of Nashville and country music, and Shelby County, home of Memphis, the blues and Elvis, according to a study prepared for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development in 2007—the most recent figures available.
The “quiet side of the mountain,” the second entrance to the park in Tennessee, is Blount County and it generates another $254 million—raising the impact of the Great Smoky Mountains area to one-seventh of the state’s tourist economy.
So when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would pump $750 million into national parks, including the Smokies, for improvements, Tennessee officials were thrilled.
“With any attraction or destination, any improvements, any enhancement makes the experience for a visitor even better,” said Qualls-Brooks.
In its 75th birthday year, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will receive $30.1 million from the federal stimulus package for both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides, according to the National Park Service Web site.
Of course, the main reason for the Recovery Act funding is to stimulate the economy by creating jobs.
“By and large, this is going to mean contractors will work with us, and they will have these projects in parks,” said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. “They will be regional and local contractors, which means they hire people locally.”
But the benefits from that stimulus spending—and the $170 million the Federal Highway System will spend on road projects in the parks—will be far-reaching.
“Of equal importance to us and the president was that these projects be of lasting value to the parks and to the Americans who visit the parks,” Olson said.
National Parks Projects Benefit State Tourism
Every state except Delaware has a National Park Service unit, whether it’s a national park, battlefield, historic trail, seashore or monument, Olson said.
“When you look at it, most everybody in the United States is not very far from a national park unit,” he said.
In fact, every big community in the United States—except Winnamucca, Nev., and Grand Forks, N.D.—are within a half day’s drive to a National Park Service unit, according to Olson. That means the benefits add up for states.
The number of visitors to national parks has remained steady at around 275 million a year, Olson said. Last year, attendance was off less than one-half of 1 percent.
“I think in light of the economic situations, we’re very happy that many people still take time to visit a national park,” said Olson. “They are great places to be in good times and bad.”
Like the road projects states are undertaking, the National Park Service projects had to be shovel-ready. Work will improve trails, repair problems at abandoned mine lands and deal with invasive plant species at the parks. Olson said some of the money will be used to fund a handful of new visitor centers.
“Yellowstone has a water treatment facility that’s 50 years old and cantankerous and needs to go,” he said. “We’re going to have enough money to fix that.”
In fact, there are numerous projects across the country that will upgrade tourist attractions and, in turn, keep visitors coming to the states in which they lie.
The Intermountain Region—which covers eight Western states and includes Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon—is the largest region for the National Park Service. Intermountain Region Director Mike Snyder recognized the importance of the projects funded by the Recovery Act.
“This is an important opportunity to help boost local economies and put more people to work when our country most needs it,” he said in a press release. “We are especially grateful that this recovery effort will help us do the job America asks of us daily: To protect and improve our national parks, and to make these scenic, historic and cultural jewels available to more generations of park visitors.”
At Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, officials are pleased with the $8.3 million the park will receive to complete upgrades to the 45-year-old visitors center. Mammoth Cave Superintendent Patrick Reed told the Bowling Green, Ky., Daily News the funding comes at a critical point. “With Recovery Act funding, we can continue construction, instead of waiting years for the needed funds to accrue from cave tour tickets and campground fees,” he said.
In fact, many of the projects on the list have been needed for years, Olson of the National Park Service said.
“We’re pretty excited about the Recovery Act because of a long list of projects we’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” Olson said.
Among the projects around the country, according to the National Park Service Web site:
Shenandoah National Park in Virginia will receive more than $17 million to rehabilitate historic overlooks and rehabilitate 11 miles of Skyline Drive, among other projects.
Ellis Island in New York and New Jersey will receive $26 million to stabilize the Baggage and Dormitory Building and seawall at Ellis Island.
The National Mall in Washington, D.C., will receive $200,000 to maintain landscape features.
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail in Vermont will receive $45,000 to rehabilitate the Little Rock Pond Shelter.