Norris event kicks off start of construction for museum RV park

The developers of the new Appalachia Ridge campground and recreational-vehicle park gathered at the site adjacent to the Museum of Appalachia in Norris last week to break ground on the facility, which should open sometime next spring.

One of the new park’s owners, Mandy Conner, said she and her partners are “excited to be in Norris” and are looking forward to bringing the campground to the museum area.

“My husband has been in the campground business for a long time, and we believe this is the perfect spot for our next project,” she said.

The owners are Mandy Conner and her husband, Jimbo Conner, along with Mike Hale and his wife, Jessica Hale. The four are already partners in The Ridge Outdoor Resort in Sevierville, after which the Norris campground will be patterned.

Mandy Conner said after last Tuesday’s groundbreaking that the group chose the name Appalachia Ridge to signify its connection to the adjacent Museum of Appalachia and the existing RV park they own in Sevierville.

Norris City Councilman Bill Grieve, who was among city officials on hand for the groundbreaking, said he believes the campground will be a great asset both for Norris and the museum.

“The museum is just barely hanging on financially as it is, and this should be a big help in bringing in more visitors,” he said.

As with many tourist attractions and other businesses, the museum has been hurt by the COVID pandemic. It had to close for part of last year, and several key events that also serve as major fundraisers have been canceled or scaled back since the pandemic began.

Plans for the campground were approved in August by the city, after the land was rezoned in May to allow the facility on property next to the museum. The land for the RV park is owned by the founding family of the museum.

“We’re excited to see the project get underway,” Lindsey Gallaher, who is serving as the Irwin family’s spokesperson for the RV park, said earlier. She is the granddaughter of museum founder John Rice Irwin, and the daughter of Elaine Irwin Meyer, the museum’s president.

Irwin and his family will continue to own the RV park land, but will lease the site to the group from Sevierville.

“We were approached by a friend of ours in Sevierville who is on the board of the museum about creating a campground there,” Mandy Conner said recently. “… We went up a little over a year ago and looked at the property, and we fell in love with the museum and the family. We started the process of leasing the land.

“Our goal is to really enhance the museum in Norris,” she said. “And we want to offer a really good camping experience to people traveling in the area. We believe it’s such a beautiful setting.”

Appalachia Ridge will include luxury “glamping” tents, treehouses and tiny homes for rent by the night, along with 100 campsites, according to the developers.

“We’re planning on four glamping tents, three tiny homes, and three treehouses,” said Joy Maples of Conner Marketing, who is handling public relations for the RV park owners.

The Ridge Outdoor Resort has standard and premium campsites, glamping tents and tiny homes, but does not have any treehouses, she said.

Appalachia Ridge would bring the first overnight accommodations to the museum area, along Andersonville Highway in the Bethel community on land that was annexed by Norris about 10 years ago.

The Norris City Council in May approved rezoning the land for the park/campground from S-2 (Scenic Highway District) to general commercial (C-2).

That rezoning covers the address 2819 Andersonville Highway, which includes two tracts comprising about 17.5 acres adjacent to the museum.

The rezoned area sits between the museum and Scruggs Cemetery Lane, behind a stone wall, on land the museum has used for overflow parking during special events. It sits back from Andersonville Highway, and would be accessible only through the museum’s entrance road.

The two pieces of property are Tract 132 on the Anderson County property map, a total of four acres, with Elaine Meyer listed as the owner; and Tract 13, part of which would provide the rest of the 17.5 acres for the RV park. But not all of that tract would be used for the park. Owners of Tract 13 are listed on county records as “John Rice Irwin and others.”

The move to rezone the property encountered a stumbling block in April when the Norris Planning Commission rejected the family’s request for commercial zoning, instead suggesting that the city’s S1 zoning class be modified to allow the RV park under a set of strict guidelines.

Then-Planning Commission Chairman Ed Meyer, husband of Elaine Irwin Meyer, abstained from voting on the rezoning, and later resigned from his seat on the commission. The City Council appointed former Councilman Larry Beeman to replace him on the commission during the council’s April meeting.

The City Council overruled the Planning Commission during the April meeting and voted for the rezoning ordinance on first reading, with every council member speaking in favor of the move.

They noted that the land along Andersonville Highway where the museum is located was zoned commercial before the city of Norris annexed it several years ago, and they said it was common knowledge that the city annexed that area in anticipation of commercial development.

The museum asked for the original move to Scenic zoning after Norris annexed it, to save money on property taxes, City Manager Scott Hackler said.

No prices have been announced yet for accommodations at Appalachia Ridge, the Ridge Outdoor Resort’s rates range from $46-$85 a night for “premiere” RV sites, $100-$125 a night for “signature” RV sites, $110 to $180 for “canvas glamping tents,” and $100 to $150 for “tiny home camping cabins.”