Hear from Lori Nunnery, of Visit Jackson Tennessee, about how their local leaders have rallied together to take care of their hometown. Although experiencing a lot of growth, things have changed, and Jackson, TN is adapting to the rules and regulations of Coronavirus.
Anna: Hello, everyone. And welcome to another episode of Main and Mulberry. I’m Anna Bell, and today, I’m so excited to, to have with us, the executive director of Visit Jackson in Jackson, Tennessee, Lori Nunnery. Lori, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today. Well, thank you so much for having me. Yeah, absolutely. Is it as hot and humid in Jackson as it is over here in Collierville.
Lori: I’m afraid it’s just a little sticky today, as only we could enjoy in this Delta heat.
Anna: That’s right. It is. That’s the truth. And speaking of, of summer weather, you know, let’s get started and kind of talk to us about: Lori, what, under normal circumstances, can tourists expect to experience when they come and visit Jackson, Tennessee? You know, I’ve heard really good things about the downtown Jackson area.
Lori: Yeah. You know, it’s funny when you look at Jackson. It’s a community of about 68,000 people, but really it serves a much larger population of about a half a million because we, so many of our rural counties around us come into Jackson for their services. So what might surprise you is you think it would be a smaller town, but we have a lot of the amenities as some of the larger communities. One of the things I think that will people be surprised, is we have all the chains, but we have 45 locally-owned restaurants in Jackson. Yeah. Yeah. People are surprised to find that out. So you know, if you’re looking for Jamaican, African cuisine or, or some of the more unique varieties, we have it here.
Anna: How neat is that? Oh, that’s great. Yeah. Sounds like, you know, any Friday night you can just run out and go get you something really good to eat.
Lori: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I’d say our, our other thing that we’ve got going on, that’s so great is the music. You know, Tennessee’s known for, for great music and, and Jackson is no exception. We average in Jackson, in the region, we have between 30 to 40 live music events a night. And you know, people are shocked to hear that. Some of those events are free. Some of those are pay, and it ranges a wide variety of genres of music from gospel, to blues, to rockabilly, to indie rock, to popular music. So 30 to 40 live music events on a given weekend.
Anna: How neat. Is that mostly in the downtown area or kind of in suburbs of Jackson?
Lori: It’s spread throughout Jackson and Madison County. And then we also get into the counties, you know, there aren’t other tourism offices in rural West Tennessee, so we try to help out our neighbors.
Anna: That’s great. I appreciate you kind of giving us that idea of, of what it’s like to come and visit Jackson. It sounds like good music and good food.
Lori: That’s right.
Anna: So I’d like to touch on now, you know, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, Lori. Tell us about how Jackson has been managing during this particularly difficult time. Did the city shut down completely? Was tourism kind of coming to a halt now?
Lori: Yeah, it was, it was, you know, in March when things shut down, like most people mid-March, things closed down. The shelter in place order was here. Something really unique happened in Jackson though, that most communities may not understand. We have a City and a County government, and I am so proud of them, but what happened was, we have a regional health department. So they were at the table. West Tennessee Health Care, our hospital, was at the table. We had both mayors there. The chamber, tourism, we were there. United way and Emergency Management, and we had daily briefings that this group got together and met and talked about what was happening. And so they were dealing with it on a day to day basis. And the great thing they did was, after their meeting, they had a press conference, and then it went to a video chat where they put out the information of the day. And they’re now doing that, because things have slowed down a little bit for us, as far as the COVID is, they’re doing that now twice a week, but they were doing it every day during, during the heat of the pandemic for us. And that was great information coming straight from the sources here, locally. There wasn’t, you didn’t see a political division or anything. It was just telling the story of what was going on in our communities.
Anna: That’s great. That’s so awesome, keeping everybody informed. And that information was available to the public, to the community?
Lori: Absolutely. They did a great thing. They put it on Facebook live, then they archived it to YouTube channels. And then the local media would pick that up also and broadcast that live. So we had the Jackson sun and the television station here, and they were putting that out as well. And other news media outlets were sharing that information. So we were trying to get to people and all different types of settings. You know, because not everyone has access to the internet unfortunately in our region. So it was, it was a great thing. It was bipartisan, and it was folks, you know, just trying to solve the problems and provide the best service. It was interesting for us in the hospitality industry. We, yeah, we took a huge hit. Our hotels went down for a time that they were very busy and on a record pace to going to about 40% occupancy. So that’s a huge, drastic change, but the good news is we expected to be 10%. So to be up at 40, it was just, it was great news for us.
Anna: Absolutely. I know. This has just been a really trying time and a lot of different areas in our communities, and one in particular is small businesses. A lot of small businesses have struggled to survive right now, and a lot are closing the doors. Can you kind of really tell us the extent of the damage the pandemic has cost the city? Do you know of many businesses that have had to close their doors?
Lori: Yeah. That there have been some. It could’ve been much worse for us. We were very fortunate, in that the shelter in place, you know, for Tennessee came down pretty quickly, and people honored that. I think what we saw was innovation with those small businesses, that they adapted, that they changed their services, they pivoted so that they could serve the community by offering curbside service or online service. Our restaurants especially did a great job of doing that curbside and taking care of folks. And so, you know, we didn’t suffer as bad as what some communities did, just because of the entrepreneurial spirit and people wanting to serve. So you know, it’s tight, but you know, we’re starting to hopefully come out the other side right now.
Anna: That’s right. Yeah. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel, and fingers and toes crossed, we’re getting closer and closer every day. Right?
Lori: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Anna: Touching on that, you know, as restrictions are starting to loosen up, how are you guys operating right now? What restrictions are you under right now?
Lori: Yeah, it’s left to most of the businesses. We find that most of our restaurants, if not all of the restaurants, are wearing masks. They do not limit people right now coming in, with or without masks, but they are socially distancing. They do have the sanitation stations throughout their businesses. So they’re doing good with that. The retail operations are picking back up. Most of the retail employees are in masks and, you know, you’ll see the plexiglass up now in a lot of places that you didn’t necessarily see before. I think, we see those changes and that evolution, one of the things for us that’s really making a change in the business is that our sportsplex, the West Tennessee Healthcare Sportsplex has opened back up. And so they’re playing baseball and softball out there. They just, this is just their second weekend, but they seem to be doing well.
Anna: Are they allowing for spectators to come?
Lori: They are, they are. That park, the way it’s laid out, it’s conducive to social distancing. They have like one set of bleachers, but most of the guests bring in pop up tents and chairs and socially distance themselves anyway. So things are going well with that. We have an awfully busy weekend coming up this weekend. I think we have pastime sports at the Jackson Generals ballpark, and then at the sportsplex, we have baseball and a softball tournament. So it’ll be a busy weekend for us, but everybody’s using good sense. So that’s the good thing for our community.
Anna: Well, a lot of people right now are just missing sports so badly. For the longest time, my husband was watching the old reruns, you know, wishing so much that he could have a real, live event going on. So the fact that you guys have some sports programs up and running. I’m sure that’s kind of bringing some comradery and community spirit back together again.
Lori: And that’s very well put. It is, it is. People are excited to see a ball in sports and hear that ball hit the bat. You know, it’s just, people are excited about that. And we’re glad that, you know, we’re, we’re able to pull that off right now. That may not always be the case, but for right now, they’re doing the tournaments. We’ll have a break next weekend on the 4th of July. But then things will get going geared back up.
Anna: Okay. So kind of, back to the restaurants and other businesses, there’s no real capacity restrictions right now? There’s nothing, you know, no other restrictions, other than making sure everybody has masks and hand sanitation.
Lori: They are socially-distancing in there. You know, they kind of, some restaurants are at different levels, based on what they are comfortable with. Most of them are doing the 50% capacity, even though the state guidelines say, you know, you could go back up to a hundred. We were kind of, we’re a regional health department, so we’re a little bit different than all of the rural counties around us. There are only nine in Tennessee, and so based on that, we were able to set our own guidelines. So if you’re planning a trip to Jackson, the Jackson, Madison County, regional health department is the primary source for any rules or regulations. So you can always check that out. The Jackson, Madison County, regional health department they have a great Facebook page and have all the details of where things are. So I would encourage people, if they’re going to make a trip here, to take a look at that.
Anna: That’s great. Great. I’m glad you mentioned that. Can you tell us how Visit Jackson, you know, CVB has been affected through all of this?
Lori: Well, we’re still figuring that out. Just like everybody else, you wake up and you check the news first thing to see what’s going on. But one of the things our team did, which was really great is, you know, our goal is to attract people to come visit us here. And from the beginning, our first focus was making sure that information was getting out to the public. And so we kept on top of what local restaurants were open. And so that’s how we kind of started this process out, is that we were keeping up to date, and that was a really-quickly changing thing, with the restaurants and the guidelines there. So keeping the understanding of what was going on with the restaurants out there in front of the public, then we took on the retail side of it too, and making sure that if a retail operation was still operational, that we were getting that information out to the rest of the world. So that was our, that was our starting point. So now what we’re trying to do is we know that folks aren’t going to be traveling as far as they used to, that they’re more comfortable staying closer to home. And so what we did, what we’re doing now is, we are working on local itineraries that we’re publishing every week that give you an idea of some things to do, whether it’s a family, or whether it’s a girls getaway, or a guys weekend, we try to do local itineraries that include our counties in them and help people to get out and experience other things to do in a close radius.
Anna: You know, that’s such a good idea, cause sometimes you don’t, in your community, there may be other businesses that you just didn’t even know, and you’re living on the street from ’em.
Lori: So that’s a really good idea to try to keep people plugged in and shopping and eating local. Cause we’ve got to support our local businesses. I mean, everybody works local. You know, even if it’s a franchise, you still, those are local folks that are working in there. But, letting people know what else there is to do in our region, it’s kind of the story of people in Memphis don’t necessarily go to Graceland because it’s there and they don’t pay attention. Well, that’s the same thing in our community and I’m sure it is in yours that people don’t, you know, we live here, there’s nothing to do. And so we’ve had fun with it. We’re also featuring our hotels and the safety practices that they have in place. So you know, the hotels take this very seriously, as well as everyone else does, but it’s, we’ve been going into the hotels, and you know, their cleaning practices are highlighted, the social distancing, the masks. They want people to feel comfortable and when they do feel comfortable, they’ll come back to traveling. It’s just gonna take a minute.
Anna: Sure. I know it, I know it. Now that we have the first half of the year behind us, you know, what are your thoughts towards the last half of the year? Do you anticipate a strong rebound, you know, in the back half of 2020?
Lori: Oh, I think so. I think getting sports going is going to be the greatest thing for our communities. I participate in the Play Tennessee initiative, which is the sports tourism component of what goes on across the state. And so being able to get those football games back in play, to generate that money, you know, I know there’s, there’s such a strong desire from that, and I know people are going to have to adapt. And I’m not sure what that looks like. I don’t think any of us do, but you know, we’ll get there, we’ll get there. I’m sure we will.
Anna: That’s right. That’s exciting. Can you tell us, it sounds like you guys are putting on a lot of events throughout the year, and I’m sure there were some events earlier in the spring that did not get to happen. Were those events canceled or just postponed until later in the year? Kind of tell us about your events schedule.
Lori: Yeah. Yeah. We are primarily event-based, you know, in this region to draw folks in. It was very disappointing in the early spring to see things like the Humboldt Strawberry Festival, The Trenton Teapot Parade be canceled for the year. So it was so disappointing, because you know, those bring in between 40 and 50,000 people to those small communities. You know, here in Jackson, we had the Jackson International Festival and that unfortunately had to cancel, that’s slated for September, and that canceled, not so much because of the pandemic, but the financial impact of the pandemic. You know, it takes sponsorships to make those festivals happen, and unfortunately, money is a very tight thing right now. So we had to, a lot of those festivals are on hold. We recently postponed our AMP concert series. The AMP is an outdoor 10 concert series that happens (usually) April through September. All different types of music, it’s free, we have the food trucks there. And it was, it was disappointing to see us have to cancel the first half of that session. We’re hopeful for the end of it to be rescheduled, but we’re just kind of waiting right now to see the next steps. So yeah, we are highly event-based, and I worry for the nonprofits, all of their fundraising, great events. It’s going to be tough.
Anna: I know, I know it’s a tough time for everybody right now. You know, Lori, as we wrap things up, I’d like to give you the mic for a minute and kind of tell us what have been your biggest takeaways throughout this entire pandemic, from a tourism standpoint.
Lori: Oh, gosh, gosh.
Anna: A loaded question!
Lori: It is, it is. I think, for us, you know, you have to sit back and evaluate the situation and see what’s going on. Our industry has pulled together like it always does in times of challenge. I’m afraid that they’ll be job losses. There have been job losses in the hospitality industry, just because of the change in what’s going on. But those brighter days are ahead of us, you know, even despite all that’s going on right now for us, we’re still working on a project with The Great Wolf Lodge to bring it to Jackson, which would be a $150 million water park. Yes, and we’re still working that project. That is still ongoing. We have done everything local to make it happen. And now we’re waiting to see what the state government does to make it happen, but let’s, our goal is to keep things on track and hopefully we can break ground in 2021. We’re working on the last little bits and pieces of it with the state government. So you know, hopefully in two years, we’ll have a $150 million waterpark bringing in 500 jobs to this area. So this will be life changing for us here in Jackson, tourism wise. This will give us the destination that we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish on our own. So even though this is a time of great challenge for our community, our state, and our nation, there are still good things happening, and there’s still business growth. So don’t give up folks. It’s just around the corner. We just have to be smart about what we’re doing now.
Anna: That’s right. And it’s so good to have something to look forward to, you know? Through all of this, something to look forward to is a good thing.
Lori: Absolutely, absolutely good times are ahead. We just gotta be smart about what we’re doing right now.
Anna: Lori, we really appreciate your time and your insight today. Thank you so much for taking the time to kind of paint that picture of what’s going on in Jackson, Tennessee for us today. Thank you.
Lori: Well, thank you so much. And we encourage people to just visit. We have a website, we have an app, we have social media channels. It’s all visitjacksontn. Look and see what’s going on and hopefully you can find something to do here.
Anna: Awesome. Thank you again, Lori. Until next time, everyone, I’m Anna Bell sending you all well wishes.