Chamber hosts tourism panel

The Cullman County Tourism Bureau held a tourism panel on Friday, March 15, discussing plans to boost tourism in the city. Cullman Parks, Recreation & Sports Tourism Executive Director Nathan Anderson is pictured. (Janet Chandler)

CULLMAN, Ala.- The All Steak’s banquet room was bustling with excitement on Friday afternoon as the Cullman County Tourism Bureau held a tourism panel for the members of the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce at the chamber’s monthly community luncheon.

The event was sponsored by HomTex, whose CEO Jeremy Wootten acted as emcee for the afternoon, directing questions to board members, asking them to share their hopes and five-year plans for increasing tourism and economic revenue for the city.

With Cullman nominated for ‘Best Small Town Cultural Scene’ in the annual USA TODAY 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards, the panel was prepared to lay out its plans to elevate the downtown area’s visual appeal and ease of visiting. Tourism is a major part of a town’s thriving culture. Visitors spend money and support the local economy, and those businesses and organizations enrich other businesses and entities, pushing the wheels of progress forward.

Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, was the first to take the mic, speaking about the various beautification projects spearheaded during his tenure on the Cullman City Council. Gudger is responsible for petitioning the City to create Cullman’s current downtown cityscape. A council member and then council president, Gudger is now a member of the Alabama Senate. Constant improvement, progress and evolution were the themes of Gudger’s address.

“If we have all these entities all in the same boat, rowing the same direction, we can promote Cullman to people not only in Cullman but to people outside of Cullman coming in, whether it’s for a weekend, a track meet or any kind of sports event. We can show that when people ask you where you’re from and they say, ‘Cullman, Alabama,’ they know where Cullman, Alabama is,” he said. “Someone’s interpretation of Cullman 20 years ago should be totally different than it is today.”

Cullman Parks, Recreation & Sports Tourism (CPRST) Executive Director Nathan Anderson was the next speaker, sharing details on festivals and upcoming plans for the new Cullman Civic Center.  The city is home to 13 parks, five recreation facilities, two golf courses, an RV resort, 27 miles of walking/riding trails and the recently added WildWater park, all of which fall under Anderson’s watch. Festivals also fall under his purview. The estimated economic impact of Cullman’s three festivals – The Alabama Strawberry Festival, Oktoberfest and the newly added Christkindlmarkt – for 2023 is $17-20 million, with the anticipated five-year impact to be in the range of $125 million.

Anderson displayed an infrared heat map of Cullman, stating, “This is a heat map from our festivals. Attendance from last year’s festivals was 280,000 guests that came through to our city – 70% of these people are not from Cullman County; that’s what’s amazing.”

Of the city’s new waterpark, he said,  “WildWater is fully funded by outside money; the operational overhead and the deck service is funded – at least 90% funded – by outside dollars. The festivals are growing because we built an attraction that people are willing to travel an hour, two hours, in our case, 49 states have attended our festivals.”

Another subject of discussion for Anderson was the new Cullman Civic Center, to be added to the area now dubbed the OmniSports District, including the Field of Miracles, WildWater, Cullman Wellness and Aquatic Center and Heritage Park.

“This last piece we are really excited for – we are hopeful that a year from now it will be open – Lord willing, March 2025, we will be opening up what I feel is the most major missing piece. It’s a 115,000-square-foot facility,” he said, “(with) eight basketball courts, six team volleyball courts and about 83,000 square feet of flexible civic center space.”

Trident Marina President and Cullman County Tourism Bureau Chairman Jeff Tolbert shared insights on tourism at Smith Lake and increasing property values. In 2019, he said, the average price of a home on Smith Lake was around $450,000; in 2023, the market saw a skyrocketing increase of 80% and those same homes are now selling in the $800,000 range. The appeal of the lake goes far beyond the reach of its waters; waterfront properties and recreation options bring home buyers and tourists from out of state.

“For the first 50 years, Alabama Power issued 4,500 dock permits. In the last 12 years, they’re now up to over 8,500 dock permits,” Tolbert said. “It’s not just dock permits. On top of the explosive growth of Smith Lake, we have now topped the $5 million (real estate) market on Smith Lake; we sold the first house that exceeded $5 million and that is quite honestly a benchmark because it was somebody out of state.”

Tourism Director Hugh Stump was the last speaker on the panel. Touching on the importance of the Cullman County Agricultural Trade Center, Stump shared plans that have been made with Cullman County Commission Chairman Jeff Clemons for the multiuse arena, hoping to freshen and attract more crowds to the town’s northernmost point. The center holds events and festivals most of the weekends that it operates, attracting crowds that may not know of the offerings of Cullman when they’re inside its very borders.

“We need to do a better job as the Tourism Bureau and we’re going to do that job of letting people know what’s going on,” Stump said. While at an event at the center in November, Stump said, he noticed the majority of the attendees came from across the nation. “Around 500 people and a couple of them were from around here; (the others) were from Texas, California, Colorado. They were down here for seven days.”

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