Smoky Mountain River Rat Tubing announced in late 2020 its first major ownership shift since it was established in the mid-1990s.
It’s now run by Jay Moore, Clayton Homes CEO Kevin Clayton’s brother-in-law.
Clayton’s family now has a massive local investment in Townsend.
Clayton family brand Salubrious Farms bought river properties such as River Rat, Burger Master, the former Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center property and several other parcels on the “peaceful side of the Smokies” — Townsend’s slogan.
All told, records show Salubrious bought more than 300 acres of land for more than $17 million in 2020. The company not only owns the largest tubing operation in town, it also may be poised to run another massive attraction: a bike trails.
Kevin Clayton told Townsend planning commissioners in March that his nephew, Corey Clayton, would head the effort to build the trails, a project that will see multiple local and regional design companies collaborate.
While those trails may be on county land, Townsend residents will continue to see the impact.
Between a steady stream of visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the bike trails and a morphing tubing industry, Townsend’s 2021 summer may be one of its busiest ever.
As business owners brace for impact, Moore for his part said he was committed to a responsible business model at River Rat — one focused on customers, residents and the natural landscape.
He recently emailed The Daily Times a list of plans for the upcoming tubing season:
• Improved parking and traffic flow.
• Added restrooms.
• Creation of a more spacious campus as a whole.
• Added lockers for improved guest experience.
• Added audible messaging for educating the guests on best practices while on the river. These include but aren’t limited to “being conscious of the natural environment and respecting the local community.”
These commitments reflect ongoing conversations about how both locals and tourists treat the river and the landscape.
Tubing, according to many who live along the river, doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to how tubers treat riverside residents.
Some of those residents urged the Townsend City Commission in 2020 to take action against drunks and the alcohol they sneak onto the river.
Tubing companies traditionally have prohibited alcohol, but that doesn’t keep people from concealing beer in coolers, being very loud and generally annoying residents the entire summer, critics say.
Furthermore, environmental advocates like University of Tennessee Knoxville student Lexi Emrey have chastised tubers for moving rocks and disturbing the natural environments that are home to species like the eastern hellbender, a salamander endangered by careless activity.
“This is a great opportunity for the Clayton family to foster goodwill and a working relationship with the community they have joined,” Emrey messaged The Daily Times in October 2020. “Implementing sustainable business practices such as limiting the daily number of customers on the river, working with local conservation groups to organize regular cleanups and restoration work, and educating users of the unique and diverse ecosystem they are visiting are all great starts.”
Moore responded to local calls for environmental and community-oriented vigilance with several commitments.
“Firstly, we will follow all the procedures and regulations set forth by the state of Tennessee,” he emailed The Daily Times in late October 2020. “Secondly, we will continue to uphold the many company policies already in place such as ... performing regular river clean-up sweeps, selling environmentally safe sunscreen and not allowing alcohol, coolers, glass bottles or cans on the river.
“Our company, along with its management and team members intend to invest in future conservation efforts as well,” he continued. “Although, our greatest opportunity may lie in further educating visitors that travel here to enjoy Townsend’s Little River.”
He emphasized that organization and the structure of how River Rat will do outdoor tourism under the Clayton banner is tailored to benefit both the community and the river.
“Without this in place, greater issues to locals and government alike would ensue. Our company strives to be good stewards in the limited time of year — less than 10% — we facilitate river guests,” Moore said.
Peak Townsend tubing season generally lasts from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This is River Rat’s 27th season, the company’s website states.