For a lot of people the name Gatlinburg, Tenn., conjures up the worst kind of Southern sprawl: huge billboards, flashing signs, tacky theme parks, trash, abandoned cars, and decaying buildings.
Well, hold onto your hats! Gatlinburg turns out on closer inspection to be the best kind of green destination, one that many tourist towns along the Appalachian Mountains could learn from.
It’s true that Gatlinburg’s main street contains lots of brightly lit fudge and funnel cake parlors, arcade attractions, and mini-golf courses. But step back a few feet, and the bigger picture shows a town that has got it right. Central Gatlinburg feels downright European: it’s a walking city, with lodging and dining nestled close to cascading mountain streams, and with world-class outdoor recreation just minutes away via public transportation. Gatlinburg has worked to bury utility wires, pick up trash, provide parking, and offer a host of other amenities that together make it an attractive destination.
My reference point is my hometown of Boone, N.C., a university town with a strong tourism component, but one still debating issues of government control and taxation as applied to aesthetics and commercial development.
Gatlinburg’s success is relevant throughout Appalachia because so many mountain towns are located next to national parkland, national forests, or other protected tracts. Here, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with 500,000 magnificent acres of forest and wilderness, has Gatlinburg as one of its main entrances, or “gateways.” As part of a fledgling movement to upgrade such gateway communities, Gatlinburg can serve as a model. All the more impressive is the limited space available in steep, narrow Gatlinburg; the town has 3,200 full-time residents, 11,000 rooms to let, and several million visitors annually, yet dense forest comes right to the main street and anglers fish for trout next to the busiest downtown intersections.
Here are some observations from a mid-May study trip to Gatlinburg:
It’s the transportation, stupid.
Gatlinburg has made it very appealing to park the car and walk, and very unappealing to sit in traffic. The town has nailed the crucial triumvirate of parking, public transit, and signage; the whole system seems calibrated to minimize the time people stay in their cars being lost and searching for directions…with engines spewing pollutants.
On the outskirts, free parking is coupled with an inexpensive “trolley” bus system plying the tourist route (and running until midnight during high season), bus shelters so attractive they shout “Use me!,” and wide sidewalks. Downtown, crosswalk warnings are painted on the roads every hundred or so feet, so that motorists can be aware. Several municipal parking lots fit unobtrusively into the downtown commercial district and are well landscaped to lessen visual impact. The rates max out at $6 a day. Many motels have parking on the ground level beneath buildings.
Municipal signage is well designed and well situated, pointing visitors to “Convention Center,” “Parking,” and “1000 Motel Rooms” with large, rustic-style signs (there’s a 280,000 square foot convention center on the main street but it takes up almost no space in the viewscape). The stoplights are numbered, and everyone refers to locations that way: fast and efficient. The trolley system is color-coded, with free route maps everywhere.
At two of Gatlinburg’s main intersections all the overhead wires have disappeared, leaving only the wide-open view of the Smokies. Traffic signals are on gracefully curving poles -- arms -- rather than strung on wires across the streets. The effect is both calming and exciting, and the city plans to bury more utility wires.
In the touristy downtown blocks, sturdy trashcans are placed every 50 feet or so, and the town picks up the trash frequently -- even at 8 o’clock Friday nights -- so there’s no overflow (it may be a different story in July). Public restrooms are available; and the town has a relatively large police force, as if to say, “We’re going to make sure vandalism can’t take hold here.” Gatlinburg has instituted a program to get junk vehicles out of town: the city pays the owners $25 apiece for the right to tow cars away for disposal.
Even Gatlinburg’s recreation department has the clean-up bug, shutting down the community center one week a year to perform such maintenance as refinishing the floors, painting the walls, washing the windows, and re-striping the parking lot. Children are growing up in an atmosphere of civic pride. The town’s use of municipal composting and other pioneering solid waste disposal programs helps preserve precious land and even has Japanese delegations visiting for advice.
Sign ordinances in Gatlinburg have some interesting twists: posting room rates is not allowed except in specific and little-used circumstances, which city officials say actually keeps rates a bit higher but removes the maddening bait-and-switch pricing of some tourist cities; new signs are limited to 60 square feet; pricing information for meals and fuel must be kept small; and every new outdoor sign must get approval from the town’s design review committee.
Who pays for all this goodness? Visitors for the most part: every business in town pays a 1 ¼ percent city tax on gross receipts, and most businesses cater to tourists. This kind of impact tax helps keep town coffers full without placing an undue burden on residents.
Rivers run through it.
Several big streams run from Great Smoky Mountains National Park through town, notably the west prong of the Little Pigeon River, and the sound of falling water is everywhere. Gatlinburg has chosen to capitalize on the water: motel rooms and cabins and restaurants are perched over the creeks (how relaxing, and no air conditioning required!), the streams are almost devoid of trash, and there’s a scenic walkway along one branch downtown, with flower boxes, benches, trashcans, and easy-on-the-eyes sidewalks of textured rocks and planks. In addition, the town fosters a fishing culture by stocking the creeks with trout (under the recreation department’s budget), providing easy access from the walkway, and supplying informational brochures for anglers of all ages.
Once you’ve parked at the motel, there’s simply no need to get back in the car for a good dose of fresh air. Why can’t every town care for its resources this way, bringing people to nature?
Unlike many national parks established to preserve pristine natural wonders, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created to revive a gigantic tract of logged-over private property. And unlike the national parks that charge admission -- and keep 80 percent of gate receipts for their own use -- GSMNP is free and loses out on a lot of revenue. The result is an array of partnerships between “the park,” town government, nature groups, and private businesses, partnerships that raise money for park operations and organize volunteers to provide seasonal help and interpretive programming. The sense of pride in the park is palpable and implies that everyone in town wins or loses together.
Gatlinburg’s parks and recreation department offers imaginative programming for residents and visitors alike; a bike-and-hike program uses town personnel but national park land, while scouting and bicycle groups lead off-hours activities like moonlight biking and moonlight hiking (at full moon only). Bike-only early morning hours in the park help serve diverse constituencies on limited roadways.
Children who grow up with this incomparable natural playground as their back yard are sure to become energetic stewards of the land.
For more information see www.ci.gatlinburg.tn.us, www.nps.gov/grms, and www.Gatlinburg-tn.com.
Freelance writer Nan Chase serves on Boone’s Community Appearance Commission.