CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Bradley County tourism revenues have fallen for the first time in more than a decade, officials with the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce said.
The county's tourism revenue totaled $95.6 million in 2009, down 11.7 percent from the previous year, according to a Chamber news release.
"2009 was a rough year all around," said Melissa Woody, vice president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau at the Chamber. "Almost every county in Tennessee saw their numbers go down."
Nicole Clay, general manager of Cleveland's Hampton Inn, said the hotel had fewer business and leisure visitors in 2009, but growth has returned this year.
The number of Ocoee River rafters staying at the inn last summer fell, Clay said. In addition, the recession's effect on leisure spending meant fewer visitors for the autumn leaf season, she said.
Tourism revenue for the entire state of Tennessee was down 7.5 percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Only 10 of 95 Tennessee counties experienced growth last year, the association said, and only one of those was in Southeast Tennessee. Polk County had growth of 6.7 percent, figures show.
Jan Beck, president of the Polk County Chamber of Commerce, said her staff got the news last week.
"We have been just ecstatic," she said. "When you're one of the smallest counties, you really don't expect to come out on top over the larger counties in Tennessee."
Polk also beat Hamilton, Shelby, Davidson and Knox counties in tourism revenue growth, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Beck said the Polk County Chamber stepped up its advertising efforts last year in Southern newspapers and published an ad in the Tennessee visitor vacation guide.
"We have had a tremendous response," she said.
Visitors have been staying longer and spending more money in the county despite the economy, she said.
"For many years Polk County has been a well-kept secret," Beck said. "Now people are beginning to find out what we have to offer."
Polk County's tourism success is in part because of its proximity to North Carolina and Georgia, its central location in the South and the natural beauty of the area, said Angie Arp, owner of Ocoee Rafting in Polk.
The company's business increased despite the recession last year, she said.
"It's not a huge expense, and it's a cheaper form of recreation. That's why it stayed consistent through the economic crisis," she said.
The outlook for tourism in Bradley County is looking better, and lodging-tax collections are beginning to improve, Woody said. Sales-tax money generated by tourists helps support local services such as roads, schools, police and fire protection, she said.
Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland said last year's drop in tourism revenue has not had a negative effect on local services.
"I'm disappointed in the decline because we've been so successful," he said. "We just don't want to see [income] decline any further."
Rowland said a great deal of the city's tourism revenue comes from conventions and events, and the city has plenty of events ahead.
Interest in the Bradley County area has remained high because of advertising and affordability, Woody said. She said more than 45,000 people have requested visitor guides this year.
Harrison Keely is an online breaking news producer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He also anchors the daily newscast. He joined the Times Free Press as a reporter in 2010. He previously served as managing editor of the Smoky Mountain Sentinel in western North Carolina and as a business reporter for the Washington Times in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Lee University in 2009 where he served as managing editor of the student news ...