Hiawassee Proactively Seeks Tourism Dollars
hat Hiawassee has is an abundance of nature’s bounty: waterfalls, mountains and hiking trails. What it lacks is significant growth potential from the tax base of 912 residents.
The city that sits at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and has Lake Chatuge as one of its natural attractions is working to take advantage of its natural resources to increase tourism, which is the largest contributor to its revenue stream.
Hiawassee bills itself as “Georgia’s lake and mountain paradise.”
Tourism is big business in Georgia. According to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, tourism is a $63.1 billion industry for the state and drives significant business growth and increased revenues for companies.
Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales said a $30,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission last year paid for a seven-month study by University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute. The study included focus groups, one-on-one interviews and a town hall meeting. As a result, Hiawassee now has a five-year strategic plan for its future with a focus on bolstering tourism.
In January of this year, Hiawassee hired the city’s first economic development director who’s tasked with making the city more attractive to tourists and attracting more tourism-oriented businesses.
Ordiales said that although the new director has only been on the job for a few months, she’s pleased with her progress so far. In the past few months, Hiawassee has become a Main Street Community and two new businesses, one a gas station, the other Trailful Outdoor Company, have set up shop in Hiawassee. Trailful, which is located about 15 minutes from the Appalachian Trail, sells hiking gear and apparel as well as other “outdoorsy” goods.
According to Trailful Co-Founder Eric Champion, he and his partner were seeking a place in the mountains that would be ideal for their lifestyles and to open a store. They considered the cities of Blue Ridge, Dahlonega and Cleveland but after exploring Hiawassee and meeting with the mayor and other city officials they were sold.
“It’s the perfect location,” said Champion, “two hours from Asheville, two hours from Atlanta and Chattanooga, very laid back, a sense of community. It’s just beautiful with the mountains and the lake.
“Meeting Liz and hearing her vision and the great things going on sealed the deal,” he said, adding that opening the store was a big investment as well as a risk but they were reassured by the “great leadership of Liz and the city council and their vision about the future.”
Champion and his partner are publishers of two online trail magazines and he said analysis of their readers and followers indicated that one million of them live within 45 minutes of Hiawasee.
Asked how the business was faring a week after opening, Champion was jubilant. “It’s been an overwhelming success so far.” He said locals have been supportive and hikers were knocking on the store’s door asking to make purchases before it officially opened.
He called the North Georgia mountains the state’s best-kept secret.
Molly Gray, who graduated in May from Georgia State University with a master’s degree in political science, completed a study of downtown development of Hiawassee during the spring 2019 semester as part of GMA’s local government practicum.
She was charged with coming up with a guide for new businesses for the city and concluded that the following were essential to success: strong marketing (especially online), being an ethical community-based business and having local government sup- port—both attitudinal and regarding regulations.
“What works in Hiawassee will work in other places too,” said Gray.
Ordiales said the city’s goal is to retain its small-town feel but make enhancements that will make Hiawassee a travel destination to a larger audience.
“We are trying very hard to attract business,” said Ordiales of efforts to bring in more restaurants and retail shops to the town.
Ongoing summer events in Hiawassee include music on the square on Saturdays and movie nights on the square.
“We are just trying to make this a destination, make it a vacation spot,” she said.
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