$50 million LeConte Center opens in Pigeon Forge

Oct. 10, 2013 @ 11:43 PM

The county’s newest events center opened Wednesday amid a lot of smiles and applause. The LeConte Center aims to help Pigeon Forge join Gatlinburg and Sevierville in attracting conventions and events, and there are already signs the new center is helping that industry grow.

The city had already announced that one event, the International Gift Exposition of the Smokies, will be using both the Sevier County Events Center and the LeConte Center. Wednesday, Pigeon Forge Director of Tourism Leon Downey said two more events have signed on for events co-hosted by the facilities.

That shows the high demand that exists in the convention industry for a chance to come to the area, with its multitude of family friendly activities. And it was the opportunity to attract those events, both to Pigeon Forge itself and to the area, that drove the city to build the LeConte Center.

It goes hand in hand with several other developments supported by local government, including Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg and the Cal Ripken Experience Youth baseball facility set to locate near the new center. “We are so excited about what’s here now and what we see coming to our city and the adjoining cities down the road,” City Manager Earlene Teaster said. “We certainly do look forward to working with our sister cities.

“We just see better things occurring for the whole area here in the very near future.”

Teaster praised the city commission for agreeing to the $50 million project, especially during a time when municipal governments were looking or ways to cut spending during the nationwide recession.

“They really took a stand, and it was hard, I know it was hard, because if you think back three years ago where we were in the state of the economy, it took a lot of courage for them to say we’re going to go forward,” she said.

The commission also honored Teaster for her work, surprising her with the presentation of a plaque paid for using private funds and displayed in the lobby of the center.

The opening drew Tennessee Tourism Director Susan Whitaker, who threw out some impressive numbers to show that the tourism market is growing again. Statewide tourist revenues were up 5.2 percent last year, while locally the number was even higher at 7.5 percent, she said.

The local numbers mean about $1.7 billion in direct economic impact for the area, she said.

“You talk about economic development, tourism is just a juggernaut,” she said.

The National Quartet Convention, which was one of the first groups to book the facility, recently had its last event in Louisville and has already booked 5,000 room nights for next year’s event in Pigeon Forge, officials said. Representatives of the event were on hand for Tuesday’s opening.

Kay Griffith, national account executive for the International Gift Exposition of the Smokies, said having two large venues was a major benefit for the show. The event, which started 14 years ago at the old Grand Resort, has steadily outgrown its accomodations. By the time it moved to the Sevierville Convention Center, it was so large a pavilion had to be added outside the exhibit center to provide more space.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “We’re just tickled.”

The center was a hit for local residents who came by to take a tour, too.

Sally Lane thought it would make a perfect location for the city’s annual Quiltfest, which will move into the center after being spread out for several years spread out among several locations to make room for vendors and different events. Lane is a member of one of the two quilting guilds that help organize the event.

“I’m excited, I’m very excited,” she said. “It’s been very easy to see what (the Quiltfest) will be like.”

Albert Parsons, a Wears Valley resident, wasn’t there because he’s planning an event. He just wanted to see the finished product after watching the building go up the last few years.

“Construction-wise, it’s amazing,” he said. “They’ve done a great job.”

jfarrell@themountainpress.com