Main and Mulberry Podcast – July 8, 2020 (w/ Leon Downey, Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism)

Have you been to the Smoky Mountains? Then you’ve probably visited Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. All located in East Tennessee, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg work together to accommodate tourists from all over. With nature trails, quaint shopping districts, and more, you should add The Smoky Mountains to your “must-see” list.

Transcript

Anna: Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of Main and Mulberry. I’m Anna Bell, and today I’m really excited to have with us the Executive Directory for the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism in Pigeon Force, Tennessee, Lean Downey. Leon, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today.

Leon: Thank you very much, Anna, for giving me the opportunity.

Anna: I’m really excited to learn more about Pigeon Forge. But first let’s learn a little bit about yourself. How long have you been in the area?

Leon: I’ve been in this job for.. in April, 32 years.

Anna: Wow. So you know your way around the city then.

Leon: I like, I might like it here. I don’t know.

Anna: It sounds like it. It sounds like we picked the right tour guide for today.

Leon: I know a little bit about what’s going on.

Anna: Oh that’s great. Well for those of us who have not yet had the opportunity to visit, we’d love to, you know, for you to bring this place to life in our minds, you know. Let’s kick things off, tell us where you’re located and you know, tell us just a little history about Pigeon Forge, if you will. ‘Cause if I remember correctly from history classes, there is some historical significance to Pigeon Forge, right?

Leon: It’s an unusual name. I’ve not heard of any other city named Pigeon Forge. So I’ll be glad to talk to you about that. So Pigeon Forge is primarily a family vacation destination. We’re located in the Eastern part of Tennessee next to the adjoining Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and that’s America’s most visited national park. Last year, it had 12 million visitors, which, the next most visited national park is Grand Canyon National Park with 5 million visitors. And there’s no admission charge. That’s one of the reasons it’s so popular. Most national parks – I think there are 14 parks in the national park system that don’t have admission charges. But anyway, family vacations are what we’re all about. It’s the only industry we have in our city, to illustrate that point. When I had my eyes examined in the spring by my optometrist, the first question he asked me was, why or what kind of tourism season we’re going to have.

Anna: That’s what’s on everybody’s mind right now.

Leon: If we don’t have a good tourism season, if the people who go to him don’t have enough money to get their eyes examined or buy glasses for their kids and things like that. So, tourism is the only industry here and it’s become a year-round industry in the time that I’ve been here. And we have over 70 attractions here in the city, in addition to Dollyewood, which is the most ticketed attraction in the state of Tennessee, they have 30 million visitors a year there. We have 90 registrants. We have 14, 592 hotel rooms, or lodging units, I should say.

Anna: My word. So you’re always expecting a big crowd, right? That’s what it sounds like.

Leon: In a prime summer season, we’ll have at least 50,000 people come down, but we only have 6,000 permanent residents.

Anna: Okay. Okay. So  way fewer locals then. 

Leon: Exactly. And so because we have as many as 50,000 people a day, it’s the infrastructure has to be really different. Like our water treatment plant and wastewater treatment, plant process, 11 million gallons of water a day. Our police force, we have 68 sworn police officers. So what other city of 6,000 people, do you know that have those kinds of infrastructure? 

Anna:  Sure, sure. I thought it was really interesting before we got started, you were kind of telling us how your, your department of tourism is a little bit different than maybe some of the other areas.

Leon: Most convention and visitors Bureau is, or chambers of commerce or a 501c3, nonprofit organizations. But because tourism is the only industry in our city here, the chamber of commerce that was here in the early eighties, decided that the city was giving them money to market with. And the chamber members about 300 members said, why don’t we just let our chamber staff become part of the city government? And they disbanded the chamber. So back in the eighties, early eighties, then that happened, and since then it’s been part of the city government, just like the police department, the fire department or public works because again, tourism is the only industry.

Anna: Wow, that’s really interesting. It sounds like

Leon: We do all the marketing, all the promotion for the city. And again, this I’ve been blessed to have the same city manager that I worked to, or for the whole time I’ve been here always have had city commissioners and mayors that have been supportive. And they understand that if we’re not marketing that people won’t come. So it’s we’re very lucky our budget. And then I’m not saying this to brag, but our budget, the city commissioners and the mayor had our budget is the biggest budget in city government because the police department, fire department all realize if we don’t have a successful tourism season, they don’t get to buy a new toys or hire new firemen or any police officers.

Anna: That’s right. It’s a symbiotic relationship, right. One balances, the other, huh?

Leon: It is that. So, yeah, it’s a really unique situation here for sure.

Anna:  Well, tell us, what do you think, you know, really encourages tourists and families to come visit the city? What really draws the people in you think?

Leon: Good question. Because again, tourism is the only industry here, so we don’t have a lot of transient travel, like somebody in Knoxville, Tennessee on the interstate with, we don’t have a lot of corporate or business travel here when people are here, they’re here on vacation. So it’s very easy for us to go do research. So we, it doesn’t matter what I think or what our staff thinks. We ask our guests all the time and our target audience, just so you know, those moms 25 to 49 with small children in the house. That’s

Anna: And that’s me, that’s me.

Leon: There were, we want to talk to you. We want to find out what you like, what you don’t like, what we need more of what we need less of. So we do lots of research and the research has told us in the whole time I’ve been here, the reason people come here primarily is because of the scenic beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the area. And the variety of attractions that we have here not only as Pigeon Forge, but if you’ve never been here before our sister city to the North is the city of Sevierville. You drive out of the city of Sevierville, and then seven miles to the South is Gatlinburg. So people that come here, if I asked somebody from Birmingham where they went on vacation, they more than likely, we will not say Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg or Sevierville, they say they went to the Smokey Mountains. 

Anna: Smokey Mountains, that’s right.

Leon: It’s one destination is what the research tells us. And the research is very clear that when they’re here, they’re spending money, they’re visiting attractions in all three cities and they see it as one destination. And what I say is, if you’re living in Birmingham, Alabama, you walk out your front door,  here at your cabin at Pigeon Forge, you see these beautiful smokey mountains all around you. 

Anna: Mr. Leon, I do want to keep talking about the Smokey Mountains for a minute because I haven’t ever been myself. It’s something that I like to do. Take the kids. And I have a question I’ll just got to ask you, have you ever seen an elk out there? ‘Cause that is something I really enjoy doing.

Leon: They were actually they’ve, they’ve really done very well here since they were reintroduced into the national park. They’re primarily were located over in North, here on the North Carolina side of the park. Half of the park 550, 2000 acres is in Tennessee. Half of the park is in North Carolina and they were introduced over in an area called Cataloochee Cove. And it’s more of an isolated area than here on this side of the Smokies. And because of that, they have just thrived over there. And they venturing more toward the top of the park is called Cleveland’s Dome where the state, where you can stand on the state border between Tennessee and North Carolina, have your picture made. They’ve been entering that far over, we’ve seen them on this side of the Smokies. 

Anna: Yeah. Another thing that I’ve been told, I’ve got to try as the gondola rides on the top of, is it Anakeesta? Is that right?

Leon: It’s a great ride in Gatlinburg, there’s a mountain top park. They actually today introduced a new tower there that I wasn’t able to get up to the end, but it’s a very neat attraction that stands up above Gatlinburg. Great views. It’s a wonderful place, you walk around on a bridge, a wooden bridge that’s suspended a lot of the time. So it’s a really cool attraction.

Anna: How neat that’s so awesome. It sounds like it’s a ton of family friendly things that you can do outdoors and indoors too. You’ve got adventure parks and museums. You know, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of stuff, you know, you can do, you can, you know, basically make a whole itinerary out of your visit, right?

Leon: It’s very easy to spend the week here and you wouldn’t be able to see and do everything that’s here. And when you have three cities combined here right next to each other there’s just always something to you. That’s the other thing. There’s always something new and different in the market. That’s another reason that people always like to come back. They know when they come back, they’re going to find a new restaurant, a new ride, or a lot of really unique things here in unique. So word that’s over utilized, but we have attractions here. Like it’s called the outdoor gravity park, which actually, if you ever heard of Zorb? 

Anna: No, I’m not.

Leon: It came from New Zealand. You’re probably maybe 10 years ago. It’s an 11 foot in diameter, plastic ball. And inside of that just ended a six foot diameter plastic ball. And they put 10 gallons of water in it and roll it down the hill. And you’re in there. It’s like being in a giant washing machine. So as the ball rolls around you. You don’t roll because of the water. You go where the water goes.

Anna: I see.

Leon: It’s a, it’s so much fun. An interesting story. I’ll tell you though. When they opened here, they asked me to be their guinea pig on their opening day. They had all the TV crews from the local news stations there and I laughed really loud and I was having a ball and laughing and I got stuck. Water went down my throat and I thought, I remember thinking I want to die. I can’t deal with me all the time. So I’m thinking this is not going to be good to get to the bottom of the Hill, and the Tourism Director’s dead and said, you know, it’d be okay. And by the time I got to the bottom of the hill, I was laughing again, my marketing manager was with me. She said, I can hear you laughing when they pushed you up. It’s a thousand foot hill that you’re going down.

Anna: Wow. So it took a minute to get down the Hill.

Leon: Oh yeah, it does. But it’s a, it’s a fun ride. I love that ride. That’s again, they came all the way from New Zealand to do that. They looked all over the Southeastern United States and chose Pigeon Forge because of all the family attractions we have here. And our first Alpine coaster in this market the owners of that looked all over the Southeast and they chose Pigeon Forge, they’re Germans. And so now we have probably six or seven Alpine coasters. That’s again, it’s just an amazing ride. Or you go back in the mountains about a mile and you can, it’ll go up to 27 miles an hour, but you can’t come off the track. You’re strapped down and it’s on a coaster-type thing and you can’t have it. It’s just, there are so many fun things to do here. 

Anna: That’s so fun. Oh my goodness. I’m glad you shared that story because those are the reasons why I think you probably do have your repeat tourists, right? For those fun experiences.

Leon: They know, they know there’s always something new and different every year. Dollywood, I’ve been here 32 years, every year, Dollywood has a new ride, a new show, a new addition, something like that. And that’s a there’s. So there’s, it’s just a fun place to be

Anna: Lot to do. So now that we’ve kind of mapped out our itinerary, let’s talk about some of the places to stay. You know, you can have a really unique experience depending on, you know, what you choose and how, how you choose to lodge. So come and tell us what options do travelers have when it comes to places to stay in Pigeon Forge? 

Leon: Great question, Anna. Again, we have 14,592 lodging units. We have 8,484 hotel/motel units in the city. We have a 2,900 cabins in the city. We have 2065 campground sites in the city and about 1,098 condos. So that’s one of the things that lodging a lot of, lot of communities that you visit don’t have cabins. They don’t have condos. And so that’s one of the most popular things that people have. They look, they think about coming to the Smokey Mountains and they want to stay in the cabin. The cabins, some of them will sleep as many as 80 people.

Anna: It’s like a little mini resort. Exactly.

Leon: Well, a lot of them believe that there are a lot of corporate retreats. A lot of them are family reunions where you have your own bedroom, your own bathroom and things of that nature, indoor pools theater rooms, of course, jacuzzis and hot tabs. It’s just amazing variety of lodging options. So you’re in Pigeon Forge and all those Sevier County, to be honest with you.

Anna: Oh, that’s great. What is one of your favorite parts about Pigeon Forge?

Leon: Well, again, I just, I love being out here and seeing people, having fun, making family memories. I love being out on the parkway and seeing families taking photos of each other and again, it’s about spending precious family time together and making those memories. And again, a lot of those people are brought here by their parents and then they bring their children and he ended up having family reunions here. They love a certain season of the year, whether it’s spring or whether it’s fall and the city changes seasonally. So of course, you have America’s most visited national park, seven miles to the South of us. And so you’d have the best of both worlds. There’s 800 miles of hiking trails in the park. There’s camping and fishing opportunities. I personally love a hike. I don’t get to do this as much as I like to, but it’s…

Anna: A lot of good hiking trails.

Leon: Well, like I say, there’s 800 miles of hiking trails. So it’s, our mountains are older. There were some of the oldest mountain ranges in the Eastern part of the United States. So they’re very friendly feeling compared to the Western park where most of the parks out there are sheer granite.

Anna: You know, you brought up a good point talking about the different seasons when to come. When would you suggest might be one of the best times to come?

Leon: Well, the, the right now the July, June, July, August is our biggest season of the year. Our kids are out of school. Spring has become a huge time for us. You have a lot of the older adults that come in because of all the spring flowers in the mountains and things of that nature. But weekends are always, we’re always going to have families here even in the dead of winter. Fall, October the fall foliage, which your peoples is famous for the fall foliage here in October in the Smokey Mountains. And people come from all over the world to see that. And then in the winter season, we started 30, I guess, 31 years ago, we started a program called Smokey Mountain water, fast, where the three cities agreed to put up major winter light displays. And we went to, and the reason we did that is before, I guess it was 1989, Dollywood closed at the end of October, which is the most ticketed attraction here.

Leon: So they closed. And then from October through March or April, then in the late, when the leaves fell off the tree, a lot of employees were laid off. And so we needed actually, it was such a slow time of the year. We put our traffic lights on blink here and a lot of the mom and pop hotels were closed down and the restaurants were closed down. They put signs on the windows, see you in March or see you in April. So the three cities, we tried to figure out something we could do to turn it into a major season. And we agreed to the light displays. And now we put it, we have over 15 million winter lights here, 30 years later…

Anna: I hear you right. 15 million.

Leon: Yes, ma’am, it’s the winter wonderland. It truly is. And we three cities went to Dollywood, just like we need to do this too. So there are people who stay employed year round Dollywood agreed to in their season, into November and December. And sometimes they’ll go into January. So that was the anchor that then made that all happen. And we started out small, but now it’s grown in a major season. It’s just, it’s unbelievable to me, it’s one of the things that I’m most proud of accomplishing, cause it took an off season and turned it into a major season now. And most of our employees are hired, are working year round because of the system.

Anna: That’s so wonderful. I can imagine that provided a lot of jobs like you’re saying during that season, that’s typically down. So that’s great. Well, as we kind of wrap things up, mr. Leon, I would like to know you, you sound like the perfect tour guide. We pick the perfect guy for us to come and visit Pigeon Forge. Maybe if you can give us a, a tip or a trick when we come to visit, what, what would be something you suggest?

Leon: Well, one of the things I like to encourage you or your viewers to do is to go to our city website. It’s mypigeonforge.com. And it has everything you need to know about pigeon pours, trip planning, tips on things, girls getaways, boys get away and all this, and just all kinds of things that it provides for you, all the information you want on all of our attractions, all of our lodging, on Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So the best thing is to just go to mypigeonforge.com and prowl around, and you can find all the information you’d ever want to plan a trip here. And of course you can call us on our toll free line, if you have questions or email us, we’d be glad to help with that. Say, that’s what we’re about providing service for our guests.

Anna: That’s great, no sandwich, famous sandwich that you’d suggest or a pizza or somewhere to go, something like that, that you throw out.

Leon: That’s one of the things that people love about pigeon forge is the variety of restaurants that we have here. And I need to count up. I thought about that before I came to get on with you. We have a lot of locally owned restaurants that are just amazing restaurants. One of my favorites is the Pottery House Cafe and they have a sandwich there, it’s green tomato with bacon sandwich.

Anna: Oh yum.

Leon: It’s amazing. Fried green tomatoes sandwich with, bacon. Oh, and an avocado. It’s amazing. And then another one, that’s one of my favorites here is a restaurant called the Local Goat. It’s called Elvis Burger. Yeah.

Anna: I can talk in our language now. That sounds good.

Leon: Yeah, it is. It has the hamburger with lettuce and tomato and the bottom patty. And then on top of that, she put, it’s a banana, the cooked banana and, and peanut butter. Yes. 

Anna: That is too fun. You wouldn’t think of those two things together, but I bet it’s pretty good.

Leon: We had a lot of people addicted to the fried green tomatoes BLT and to the Elvis Burger because all the time if somebody’s with me, I’ll say, you need to try this, take a bite of it. And I was like, that is good. So yeah, a lot of restaurants here that people love. I’ll tell you another interesting story. When I first came here, I was invited Raytheon corporation, to come to their break room because tri-cities was Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City was one of our top feeder markets. So the Raytheon corporation asked me to come up and set up a table in their break room to talk about all the new things in Pigeon Forge. But it didn’t take five minutes before I learned that the people who came in knew more about Pigeon Forge than I did. And I had a gentleman that, that first trip I went to when I was working for the city that said he and his wife, Kim come to the Old Mill Restaurant every other Sunday from Johnson city, Tennessee to have breakfast. 

Anna: That’s serious devotion, isn’t it?

Leon: And an hour and a half drive each way. So those people up there have this destination and they know it very well. And that tells you how people have ownership of this destination.

Anna: That is so true. Well, Mr. Leon, thank you so much for your time and your insight today, and really painting a picture for us of how wonderful Pigeon Forge, Tennessee really is. Thank you.

Leon: Thank you very much for having me on and I enjoyed it and come see us.

Anna: Absolutely. I’m going to have to load up the kids and come see you.

Leon: Yes, ma’am. We look forward to it.

Anna: All right guys, until next time I’m Anna Bell sending you all well wishes.

 

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