Image courtesy of daytontn.net
Dayton, Tennessee. Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, this town could easily be forgotten. An impoverished area on the federal list of economically distressed communities.
That is, if it weren’t for a man named Dennis Tumlin, who saw an opportunity in a great fishing hole and a proactive local government. Ten years ago, Tumlin was a salesman with Coca-Cola, living out of a suitcase. Despite his constant travel, he couldn’t escape a feeling of inertia. “It just became purposeless. I felt like there was a place I needed to be, somewhere I could do much more than just selling another soda.”
Travel enough in the Southeast and you’re bound to come across a bass fishing tournament. Tumlin, who also enjoyed fishing, came across plenty of them. And whenever he did, he noticed that stores in those areas needed more Coke By Playmaker Staff – more everything, in fact. “I thought, if this works in Eufaula, Alabama or in Okeechobee, Florida, wouldn’t it work in Dayton, my hometown?”
It might have stayed merely an idea, except that around that time, Tumlin’s longtime friend, Gary Louallen, was elected mayor. Louallen asked Tumlin to come back home and help sell Dayton, rather than Coca-Cola. One of the ideas that both Louallen and Tumlin considered was utilizing Lake Chickamauga and its absolute treasure trove of largemouth bass to draw visitors. According to a 2017 story in CBS News, Louallen said that he went to his council and asked them to trust him on this idea and that “fishing could really make it good for us.” From there, Tumlin called some contacts and in 2013, their first event, a Walmart FLW Tour, was held on “Lake Chick.”
That one event resulted in an increase of $1.5 million in sales tax collected in Dayton. The next year, Dayton decided to go all-in on fishing. The destination hosted 33 fishing tournaments across 33 weekends. “We absolutely stepped on the gas. People were filling up hotels in a 45- mile radius of Dayton,” said Tumlin.
Image courtesy of Richard Simms, www.ScenicCityFishing.com
Within 24 months, hotels, restaurants, and retail businesses were moving into town. Well-known names like Sleep Inn, Econo Lodge, Burger King, and KFC were coming to town along with a host of niche hotels and restaurants. Housing was booming. Popular fishing shows such as Ultimate Match Fishing were being filmed. Lake Chick was the hottest fishing spot around, and everyone wanted to cast a line. By 2018, Dayton surpassed world famous Nashville as the leading hospitality sector in Tennessee.
Tumlin then turned his sights to industrial opportunities. “Before, Dayton was too financially distressed to recruit industry. We didn’t have the reserves and appeal that it took.” But, Finnish tire manufacturer Nokian Tyres was seeking a location for a new facility. Tumlin convinced the city council to purchase a piece of property for $4.2 million, since Nokian was looking for a shovel-ready site. “We went to the council and asked them to make this purchase on speculation only,” Tumlin blows out a breath. “And they did it.” The gamble paid off. Nokian chose Dayton and the new entity brought 400 new jobs to the area; this year, Nokian made a second investment that will result in another 75 jobs. Tumlin never returned to corporate America. He currently works with the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, helping the state’s 95 counties, many of which have communities classified as at-risk or distressed. Dayton is no longer in that category, though. “Dayton has not been on the federal distressed list since 2016,” says Tumlin. “And it had been on that list for a very long time – more often on that list than off it. But, with the growth we’ve overseen, I don’t see it returning.”
John Bamber, Executive Director of the Rhea Economic and Community Development Council, says that Dayton’s image as a fishing destination has enriched the community in ways that extend far beyond the lake. “It has been a catalyst for a great deal of expansion and placemaking, and I am very grateful for the many benefits that have sprung from the lake.”
Tumlin, who has been the boots on the ground for the entire arc of Dayton’s journey, says communities that want to create their own success stories need to have the vision and move forward. “In the early days, when it was tough to measure success, we always had the naysayers and the nonbelievers. But when business started growing and hotels began building in the region, the results spoke for themselves, and everyone came to believe in the success of our efforts.”