Decatur Morgan County Tourism has secured a spot for a new visitors center just off the Tennessee River near downtown that more than triples the space in its current headquarters and completes a yearslong search for a better site.
Danielle Gibson, CEO of Decatur Morgan County Tourism, said the bureau’s new location at 350 Market St. N.E., on the east side of Rhodes Ferry Park, will allow her agency to better serve visitors and the community alike.
“We’re very limited on the space where we are right now,” Gibson said of the current headquarters at 719 Sixth Ave. S.E. “We plan to have an industry and corporate meeting space on the second floor (of the new center). We’ve been looking for the four years I’ve been here, and the board of directors have been looking for a long time before I arrived. I’ve looked at many, many buildings, spaces and locations. I believe we all like the space and location at this place.”
The new site, purchased for $1.4 million from Sexton's Inc., encompasses 9,700 square feet in the two-story structure with an elevator and ample surrounding parking spaces. It is on the south side of the Tennessee River between Summer Manor Apartments on Wilson Street and the river. The existing two-story Sixth Avenue office is 2,815 square feet and does not have an elevator.
Presently, 3-GIS data mapping company is occupying the first floor of the new office building, but Gibson said the company is expected to be out in a few weeks. Food Fite Restaurant operated in a portion of the building until 2016.
“We will have the interior painted before we start moving in,” said Gibson, who added it could be the end of September before her six-member staff calls the new site home. She is unsure when signs for the new office will be erected.
“We see this building as a catalyst for riverfront development and recreation,” she said. “There has been a conversation with putting a trail along the area, that it fits in with the Tennessee RiverLine Initiative. The river is our city’s greatest natural resource. Not all cities have a river.”
Gibson said some type of museum, possibly featuring the river and city’s old town, could eventually be added at the new location.
“We’re not trying to re-create something the city already has,” she said about the proposed museum. “It’s still too early to say.”
She said it could take five years to implement all the plans the board of directors has for the new site.
City and county officials also say it was past time the tourism bureau had a larger facility. They also favor it being close to the river.
“It’s a good location. It is better than where it was,” said Ray Long, chairman of the Morgan County Commission.
Two months ago, the commission gave the bureau $100,000 toward the cost of the center.
“The center will give a better first impression of us. The river is what really draws people to Morgan County and Decatur," Long said. "... It gives us a better atmosphere when people come and meet with our tourism staff. I believe it is money well spent. I wish we could have done it several years ago.”
Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling and Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce President Crystal Brown also had upbeat assessments of the move.
“First impressions are very important. That is why we are doing the Sixth Avenue corridor project,” Bowling said. “With the new location, I understand it will include a museum component, a theater-type setting that will greet visitors who come in to see what’s in Decatur and Morgan County. The parking space will be easier for an RV to get in and out. It will definitely reflect a more positive light on Decatur, Morgan County.”
Brown said the tourism staff has been needing additional space. “The office will have more modern conveniences. The new location will help expose visitors to the amenities and access to the river. The chamber sees the new location a big plus in attracting special events.
"The center is another way for the city to put our best foot forward to constantly resell ourselves. We want to see repeat visitors. Just because we host a tournament one time doesn’t mean they will come back. This new site will help us there.”
She said Gibson’s staff does a “super job putting heads in beds,” keeping the restaurants and hotels full.
She cited the Junior Olympic Archery Development tournament at Jack Allen Recreation Complex two weeks ago that attracted about 800 archers and family members.
“That brought a significant economic impact to the city and county,” Brown said. “We know this new center will help us attract more events like that one.”
Financing for the project is coming in part from the tourism bureau’s share of the city’s 7% lodging tax. The bureau annually receives 64.3% of the tax collected. The city’s fiscal 2022 budget projected $903,000 for the bureau, up from the $643,000 it received in fiscal 2021. Gibson said her office also has money in savings that "we have been building for a very long time and we also have a loan.”
Long said money the county appropriated for the purchase is coming from the $23 million the county received in American Rescue Plan Act funds. In the fiscal 2022 budget, the commission also appropriated $70,000 to the tourism bureau.
Jeff Parker Realty is marketing the existing tourism office and parking lot along Sixth Avenue for $339,000, which Gibson said will help offset the cost of the new property. It is zoned for office property, Parker’s website said.
“We’ve already had some inquiries about it,” Gibson said. “I think it will be a good location for an attorney’s office or insurance business.”