A Day In The Life-Bob Keast
by: Carol Wallace, staff writer
A day for Birdsong Resort owner Bob Keast starts at 5 a.m. seven days a week. If he is lucky, he goes in each night around 8 p.m. In that 15-hour day, there are a lot of activities. From the general administration, promotions, maintenance, sales, service, tours and then some, made this writer worn out just keeping up with him during this interview. I had to wear my sneakers. We rode on the golf cart to quickly get from point A to B, meeting and greeting and being a host.
Keast has been married to his wife Janis for 35 years and they work side-by-side daily to make sure all of their visitors are taken care of in the best manner possible. She is the Chief Financial Officer of all their nine individual but combined businesses rolled into 35 acres and under the 11,000 square foot general offices and museum showroom. They enjoy their chocolate lab named “Pearl” that Bob adopted from the Benton County Animal Shelter about four years ago when Bob was the MC for a musical and auction that was arranged by Mrs. Patricia Mann.
He is a member of Cowell’s Chapel United Methodist Church and a 34-year life member of the Benton County Rescue Squad. Keast loves to network and be a member; in fact he belongs to more than 50 associations across the nation including Japan. Community involvement spreads a long way with Bob as a joiner and a helper. He helped organize and charter the first Chamber of Commerce in Benton County. For more 25 years he cooked hamburgers for the Rescue Squad during the week-long Benton County Fair. He is the official Santa Claus for the Elk’s Annul Underprivileged Children’s party and has not missed a party in more than 35 years. “I was even the Santa before I was an Elk, said Keast, Yes, it was rough on me in my early twenties for many years when I was going to boat motor school in Chicago and had to fly home to be Santa for the kids and in the chamber’s Christmas parade and fly back late Sunday night, but it was worth the effort. They knew they could count on me, I would never let the kids down. I love to make kids happy.”
Birdsong was purchased by his parents, Bob Sr., and Lorrine Keast in 1961, when he was only nine years old. There were only three small cabins and a mud-launching ramp. There was a 10x10 ft. uncovered boat dock on 55-gallon drum steel barrels and four leaky wooden boats.
“When you rented a boat, you also needed to supply a coffee can to keep the water bailed out,” Keast commented " That changed when we bought 20 new Aluma Craft and Cherokee Boats from Earl Thompson of Earl’s Sporting Goods in Camden. “We were the only boat dock in Tennessee that had brand new dry boats in the early 60’s,“ said Keast. “The word spread all over the state about our boats by Nashville TV Sportscasters, Bill Clay, Bill Jay, Lefty Hardcastle, John Lashlee and Larry Munson. “They really put us on the map."
“We have some tenants that have been here for 45 years. There are four-generation of families that came for a visit and liked it so well that they stayed and now they are full time residents,” Keast said.
He estimates 300,000 plus visitors come to Birdsong every year visiting the resort, the pearl museum and tour or just boating and fishing on the scenic Tennessee River’s beautiful Kentucky Lake. “Benton County and Kentucky Lake is geographically correct, meaning it is within one days drive for two-thirds of the nation’s population. This past week there were visitors representing nine states staying at the resort for a family reunion. One family traveled from Hawaii”, said Keast.
“I’m like a mother hen when it comes to the visitors. I check on everyone every day and offer assistance in any way I can. I have 20 employees, part-time and full-time, and we aim to please those who pass through our county,” Keast says.
Recently there has been 11 million pounds of asphalt put down making Birdsong a World Class Recreational Resort Complex.
“I want to insure the safety and well being of the visitors who come each year. I love this resort and I love Benton County and I want it to be the best it can be,” he commented. “Tourism is what it is all about and I love to promote it”. In fact, we have had visitors from every state in America and14 foreign countries by either land, water or by air in the past 46 years.
Safety is a very important thing at Birdsong. Currently a heli-pad is being installed for the AirEvac helicopter to land during any emergency.
“It is important to have AirEvac as a benefit to all tenants and visitors of Birdsong. With a station at Waverly they can be here within five minutes in case of an emergency,” he said.
Birdsong is also host to North America’s only freshwater pearl farm and museum. They offer guided tours daily. Keast says they get approximately 1,000 tour buses each year. That alone brings in around 55,000 visitors to the county from those big motor coaches that travel between Memphis and Nashville and Gatlinburg on week-long and day tours.
In addition to the pearl farming, the marina, and the campgrounds, there is the boat-selling and servicing business. During the winter months they spend their time doing boat and travel shows.
“Sometimes we do as many as 15 boat shows in 15 different cities across the nation during January and February. Wherever I go, I promote Benton County and Birdsong, because these two places have been my life. It’s all I’ve ever known,” Keast said.
Birdsong currently ranks No. 23 on the top 50 attractions list for the state’s tourism venues. They rank above the Nashville Speedway, the Jack Daniels Distillery, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Belle Meade Plantation, just to name a few. With the passing of the Tennessee River Resort District Act (TRRD), plans are being made to develop 25 more acres at Birdsong.
“ About 15 years ago I was among those who started to look at ways to bring more tourism into the county. The passing of the TRRD Act will be a wonderful thing to the local economy. The more people that pass through our county, the more money that will be spent here, thus creating more jobs and making local businesses more successful,” he says.
TDOT statistics show approximately 25 million people per year drive through Benton County on I-40, Highway 70 and US 641.
“If we could only attract one million of those folks, just think what it would do for the local economy. I feel that Benton County will progress and our county will come out of the dark ages and prosper,” says Keast.
Plans and drawings for the all glass floating restaurant are being developed now and Mr. Keast wants to name it the “Hard Dock Café” located on “Planet Birdsong". Also, Keast is developing a dinner cruise on a 200 passenger paddle wheeler to go up and down the lake with groups such as wedding receptions, family and class reunions and corporate parties. The Paddle wheeler or “Queen of Birdsong” will bring hundreds of thousands of tourists annually just like Opryland’s General Jackson in Nashville. “To my knowledge, there is not another dinner and entertainment cruise ship on Kentucky Lake,”said Keast.
“I would also like to build a 100' x 50' floating amphitheater. I am owner of “HeavyWeight Promotions,” which carried Billy Ray Cyrus on a whirlwind four-state tour, and has promoted other musical acts,” he said. Birdsong has a beautiful lakeside setting just like Starwood in Nashville and this area is ready for entertainment weekly during the summer on the lake.
“Birdsong is a gift from God and I have been blessed to be a part of it all my life. Both my Mother and Father have passed on and I miss them dearly every day. They brought me to Birdsong when I was 9. They had a vision and I am carrying it out to the best of my ability.” Success has many masters. God is my Master and He grants me an opportunity every day”. Football Coach Tommy Richardson told me and others during the Camden Lions first undefeated season back in the mid 60’s that a winner never quits and a quitter never wins. I wasn’t that great on the football field like the McKelvys or Troutts, or Sturdivants, just to name a few, but I have taken his fatherly advice and applied it to business as a winner and someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses those skills to accomplish his goals.. Birdsong is all my life.”