Note: This story was last updated at 1:10 p.m. June 28.
LAKE CITY—Lake City is now Rocky Top, Tennessee.
For most people, Rocky Top has been, until now, the name of a bluegrass song that is wildly popular in East Tennessee and the unofficial anthem of the University of Tennessee Volunteers. Hikers might know it as a sub-peak of Thunderhead Mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains. And shoppers might recognize it as the name of a bookstore, or gas station, or wine trail, or one of many other businesses registered in Tennessee.
But officials and business leaders here have worked for months to make their town to first to use it in a city name.
The idea is to use the name change to spur developments along Interstate 75 that could be worth up to $237 million. Proposed projects include an indoor and outdoor water park, interactive theater with a children’s museum, a coal miners music theater, and laser tag, among other things. Officials have said those developments—which have also included other options such as a hotel, restaurant, and candy company—won’t happen without the name change.
Residents hope the change and subsequent developments will create jobs, add sales tax revenues, and provide a vital economic boost to this depressed town of 1,800 people in northern Anderson County.
“That’s the exciting part,” Lake City Mayor Tim Sharp said after the name change was approved by the City Council during a brief special meeting at Lake City Middle School on Thursday.
Several hundred residents and officials from across the county attended the meeting, and they celebrated afterward with a new anthem, Rocky Top T-shirts sold as a fundraiser for middle school cheerleaders, and a sign that proclaims “Welcome to the City of Rocky Top, Tennessee.”
The name change—Lake City’s second in less than a century—had been challenged in U.S. District Court in Knoxville by House of Bryant Publications LLC, the Gatlinburg publisher that owns the copyright to “Rocky Top.” House of Bryant is owned by the sons of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, who wrote the song in 1967. The company had filed a federal lawsuit alleging trademark infringement, false advertising, unlawful taking, deceptive trade practices, and unfair competition.
But Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Varlan had denied House of Bryant’s request to stop the name change, including in a last-minute court hearing on Thursday. The case has been appealed.
The Lake City Council had endorsed the switch in November, and it was approved by the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville and Gov. Bill Haslam this year.
Thursday’s 4-0-1 vote ratified the private act approved by the state legislature. Seeking to avoid a conflict of interest, Lake City Vice Mayor Michael L. Lovely abstained because he is part of Rocky Top Marketing and Manufacturing Co., which is now leading the development effort and is in the process of hiring a chief financial officer who could help draft project proposals that could then be reviewed by investors.
“It’s like hiring a head football coach,” said Tim Isbel, an Anderson County commissioner and president of Rocky Top Marketing and Manufacturing Co.
The city will now return the private act approved Thursday to state officials for final signatures. Sharp said that could take 15-20 days.
In the meantime, Lake City, now known as Rocky Top and formerly known as Coal Creek, has planned special events on July 4 to celebrate its new moniker. The day starts with a 9:45 a.m. prayer vigil and ends with fireworks at 10 p.m. In between, there will be other activities including a 3 p.m. time capsule, Little League games, and vendors and pony rides, Sharp said.
Isbel said there will also be a cookie contest that could lead to four cookie recipes that will be packaged and sold exclusively in Rocky Top for one year, with proceeds benefiting local schools.
Sharp said Rocky Top Marketing and Manufacturing Co. has several businesses lined up and will seek others. More people, mostly real estate agents, have been in touch, he said.
Lovely said the city has until December to put up its new signs. Some $28,000 to $30,000 has been set aside for that work. There will also be new stationery and logos, and revised police and fire department badges, and a temporary sign that will be erected at the northern entrance to Rocky Top.
Designer Brad Coriell, also known as “Papa C,” said the first development project, a terraced water park, could be built on 80 acres behind the BP gas station on I-75. Isbel said that freeway is the second-most heavily traveled interstate in the United States. He and Coriell said the water park, which could take two years to complete, could include eye-catching indoor rainbows.
Coriell said investors would not come in to the city until the legal battle was over and the town became Rocky Top.
“We are now Rocky Top, and no one can stop that. It’s a done deal,” Coriell said. “Now, the floodgates are going to open.”
Other businesses that have expressed interest include Chick-fil-A and Holiday Inn, Coriell said.
Isbel said residents have been wanting something in Lake City for 30 years.
“The real developers of this place are the residents,” he said.
One resident said she recognized that the developments may not happen overnight. But she said the name change is a good move.
“I think it’s going to mean an influx of more jobs, and that will obviously provide a boost to the economy,” said Sharon Templin, LCMS cheerleading coach. “When you walk down the streets here, it’s like a ghost town. This town’s in major need of revitalization.”