Arts + Entertainment

Voters in Jackson County will get to decide next year whether to allow alcohol sales countywide.

Four of the county’s five commissioners told The Smoky Mountain News this week they would support an alcohol referendum. The commissioners have not publicly discussed the issue yet, nor formally voted to put the measure on the ballot, but have confirmed their intention to do so.

“To me personally, alcohol sales mean nothing at all,” said Debnam, the driving force on the board behind the upcoming referendum. “But we’re going to give the people a choice.”

Still to be decided is whether the vote will be held in conjunction with the May primary or during November’s general election.

In Western North Carolina, only Buncombe and Clay counties currently allow alcohol sales countywide. Henderson County residents will vote on the issue in the May primary.

SEE ALSO: Poll results bode well for supporters of countywide alcohol sales in Jackson

Chairman Jack Debnam, and Commissioners Doug Cody, Charles Elders and Mark Jones said they would support the referendum. Joe Cowan did not return a phone message before press time seeking comment.

“We live in a democracy,” Cody said simply, on why he is throwing his support behind the referendum.

Currently, Sylva and Dillsboro have a corner on the market when it comes to alcohol. Given the long trek down twisty, narrow roads from Cashiers, its not surprising residents and businesses there are among the most eager to usher in countywide alcohol.

“I think it would be super for the economy of the Cashiers area,” said Sally Eason, owner of Canyon Kitchen restaurant at Lonesome Valley in Sapphire.

Restaurants could expect to see a boost to their bottom line — as will waitresses who get tipped based on a percentage of the bill — if alcohol hits the menus.

Diners will not only spend more, but will be more likely to go out in the first place, Eason said.

Now, people who want a glass of wine or a pint with their meal might opt to stay home and knock back a few while grilling out on the deck instead. But the absence of beer and wine from grocery store shelves is probably most irritating to those who don’t live close to Sylva — and even more so to second-home owners and vacationers bowled over by the concept of a dry county.

“A lot of our guests are from Atlanta, Charlotte or Knoxville. They have been a little a surprised at that. It is a turn off,” said George Ware, owner of The Chalet Inn bed and breakfast in Whittier.

Although Ware said he personally wouldn’t start serving up Mimosas with breakfast even if legally allowed to, Ware does believe a countywide vote is a good idea.

“I am happy to hear it is being considered. I think people should have the opportunity to vote on it,” Ware said.


Then there’s Cullowhee

A nod by voters to alcohol sales countywide could bring profound changes to Cullowhee, in particular. Western Carolina University lacks the typical array of bars and restaurants found in most college towns. But that’s because Cullowhee is not actually a town, and thus is dry like the rest of the county.

Curt Collins, who went to WCU and is now owner of Avant Garden, a community-based farm and event venue in Cullowhee, said alcohol is needed to spur economic development around campus, making Cullowhee a more vibrant community, and help create the college town other university’s take for granted.

“It would create a better atmosphere for new businesses and existing business who serve food and have entertainment,” Collins said. “There is so much evidence to show that will increase the local economy. It will create new business opportunities, and those will put people to work, and increase people moving their money around.”

To solve the problem of no alcohol, Former Chancellor John Bardo crafted a complex plan. He wanted the tiny nearby town of Forest Hills to first legalize alcohol sales and then expand its town limits to include parts of campus, hopefully paving the way for a vibrant college scene to spring up. He also wanted the Fine and Performing Arts Center and the sports stadium to be part of Forest Hills, so alcohol could be sold at events there as well.

Those plans have foundered with Bardo’s leaving, but are still percolating behind the scenes.

Countywide legal alcohol sales would likely make the issue moot, however.

SEE ALSO: The historical perspective: who’s dry, who’s wet

Jeannette Evans, owner of the Mad Batter Bakery & Café on “The Catwalk” near the center of WCU, said she strongly supports a referendum. But, ironically, she isn’t sure that she could, even if the referendum passes, legally sell alcoholic beverages at the popular Cullowhee establishment because the university owns the building.

“But it’s the right thing to let people vote on it,” Evans said.

Fears of chain restaurants flooding into Cullowhee if alcoholic beverage sales become legalized in the county are legitimate concerns for such buy-local proponents as Adam Bigelow. The recent WCU graduate and member of CuRvE, a group working to revitalize old Cullowhee, said that there were similar fears about Sylva when the sale of mixed drinks were legalized.

“But that really didn’t happen,” Bigelow said. “But, if they could go to Cullowhee and find a readymade thirsty market, that could be a problem.”

Still, overall, Bigelow supports the concept of legalizing alcohol sales throughout Jackson County as part of building the community’s economy.

Collins said it would just be more convenient if people didn’t have to drive to Sylva to buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer.

“Students want to be able to walk or ride their bikes to the bar,” Collins said. It would be safer and reduce possible drunk driving between Sylva and Cullowhee by students.


Help everyone but Sylva?

Meanwhile, however, Haley Milner, co-owner of Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro in Sylva, gets a lot of customers filtering down the road from Western College University. And on weekends, live bands clearly cater to that college crowd.

If new restaurants and bars opened in Cullowhee, Milner could lose some of that business, but said she would still support countywide alcohol sales. Besides, Soul Infusion might just move closer to campus.

“There is also the possibility that we could move out there ourselves,” Milner said.

Milner said her food is the top draw for clients, not beer and wine, but alcohol sales are important to the bottom line. And giving up that piece of revenue is a strike against moving to Cullowhee without it.

Although Sylva establishments might lose a little business if other restaurants serving alcohol cropped up around the county, the town of Sylva likewise would lose some of its ABC revenue.

The town runs the only liquor store in the county right now. Debnam said he would like to see a liquor store in Cashiers, another measure that would have to be included on the ballot and approved by voters.

“Obviously it would impact us greatly. We wouldn’t have the monopoly we have right now,” said Kevin Pennington, chairman of the Sylva ABC board. “If that’s what the commissioners want to do and what the people of Jackson County want to do, that is their total prerogative.”

Sylva’s ABC store netted $360,000 last year. The town split the proceeds with the county. Of the town’s share, a portion is reserved for the police department and the swimming pool, but the majority — about $130,000 a year — goes straight into the general budget to spend on whatever town leaders please.

Putting an ABC store in Cashiers might hurt Sylva’s sales some. But doing so would at least keep more of the money from liquor sales in Jackson County.

And Commissioner Mark Jones believes the amount gained could be substantial.

As it stands now, he said, Highlands in Macon County and Transylvania County capture a share of the Cashiers market, as does neighboring Georgia, draining both sales tax revenue and ABC profits away from Jackson. And many second-home owners have likely gotten in the habit of buying in their home state or town before they come to the mountains.

Jones is also bothered by what he considers the unfairness of certain private clubs in the area being able to legally sell alcohol while other establishments cannot. There are loopholes in the law for private clubs or restaurants tied to a golf course, development or resort.

Several in Cashiers have capitalized on the arrangement, but they still have to buy their liquor from the lone ABC store in Sylva, logging weekly trips down the mountain to get their stock.

“It is a two hour roundtrip, and you are putting that on top of the cost of the product,”


Time will tell

Ultimately, it’s simply up to the county’s just more than 40,000 residents to decide, the commissioners interviewed said, and to argue the pros and cons of their decision.

“Nobody can tell me the last time Jackson County had an opportunity to vote on the issue,” Jones said. “It’s only fair to put it out to the people.”

Commissioner Elders, arguably the most traditional member of the board, said he expects some backlash to his and the board’s decision from more conservative members of the community. But, like Jones, he said that he believes it’s important that citizens be allowed to make a decision.

“The fairest way of doing anything is to put it out there,” said Elders, who owns and manages a gasoline station near Whittier on U.S. 23/74. “And let the people decide.”


How the ballot would work

It might sound simple enough, but a vote over alcohol sales isn’t a plain yes or no question. At least not to the state of North Carolina.

Voters in Jackson County may face an arsenal of questions as they wade through exactly what form of imbibing should be allowed and where. Beer, wine, liquor — or all of the above? At grocery stores and gas stations, or only sit-down restaurants? And what about a liquor store?

“If they do everything at one time, it could be a very lengthy ballot,” said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections.

County voters will face a separate question for each type of alcohol and each way it could be sold.

Most towns that allow alcohol sales have warmed up to the idea gradually: first putting beer and wine to the test, later opening an ABC store for the public, but only recently voting in the sale of liquor drinks by bars and restaurants.

The mix of what’s allowed and what’s not can take many forms.

Dillsboro, for example, allows only beer and wine and only at restaurants. No mixed drinks, and no over-the-counter sales by gas stations or grocery stores.

The towns of Highlands and Franklin for years allowed wine, but not beer.

Meanwhile, Waynesville opened a liquor store for the public in 1967, but more than 40 years passed before you could buy a liquor drink at a bar or restaurant.

There are two ways to get an alcohol referendum on the ballot. One is a petition from 35 percent of the registered voters, a highly ambitious prospect.

The other is a vote by county commissioners to place it on the ballot.

A local Dillsboro inn had four recipes featured in the Southern Living cookbook, Off the Eaten Path: Favorite Southern Dives and 150 Recipes that Made Them Famous.

The Jarrett House, a favorite Dillsboro bed and breakfast for the past 127 years, has received national recognition for its regional expertise. Pages 160 to 163 of the cookbook contain photos of the Jarrett House, an introduction to the restaurant and four of its famous recipes.

Morgan Murphy, the former travel and food editor for Southern Living magazine, toured the South in his old Cadillac, searching for the region’s best restaurants and recipes. He stopped at the Jarrett House, giving the GPS coordinates for fellow travelers, on his way through North Carolina.

“The cooking here is as straightforward and simple as their buttery biscuits. You won’t find complex ingredients or cutting-edge techniques. But what you will find is delectable Southern fare served with a smile,” Murphy wrote about the Jarrett House.

Murphy’s favorite was the chicken and dumplings. “I’d be a dumpling myself if I lived anywhere near the Jarrett House,” he wrote. The cookbook lists the ingredients and preparation instructions for the dish, including the diner secret: two kinds of pepper give the recipe a “country kick.”

Murphy included the Jarrett House’s 3-step recipe for Vinegar Pie, describing the taste as “something between a poundcake and a pecan pie without pecans. Yum.” The Jarrett House’s “easy, four-ingredient biscuits” and house apples (2 pounds sliced apples, 1 cup sugar) were also featured.

The Hartbargers have owned the Jarrett House for 36 years; in that time, Southern Living has visited the restaurant and written articles about it periodically, which the restaurant has kept for display. According to Jim Hartbarger, Southern Living has always offered an extremely positive response.

Hartbarger said the Jarrett House was chosen over other restaurants “because of its age and standards. It was a no-miss situation.” When Murphy came to visit the restaurant last year, he sat down for lunch and interviewed the staff, making sure he had a story to accompany the recipes.

“Southern Living has always been good to us. It’s an honor, and we’re really proud,” Hartbarger said.

By Tessa Rodes • SMN Intern

Depending on which town leader you ask, Dillsboro is prepared to co-sign on a more than $300,000 loan for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — or, short of that, the town is inclined to help the railroad in some significant, still-to-be-determined manner.

That loan amount is nearly double the town’s annual budget of $171,610.

“We’d sign if need be,” Dillsboro Alderman David Gates said flatly. “If they have adequate collateral, we said we would.”

Gates’ fellow board member, David Jones, was a bit more circumspect about the potentially controversial agreement: “We’re interested, and we certainly want the railroad here — we’ve agreed to listen to more details.”

The railroad is privately owned by businessman Al Harper, who has asked Jackson County commissioners for $95,176 in cash and $322,000 in the form of a loan to keep the tourist trains coming to Dillsboro on a regular basis. This is less than Harper originally sought. In early March, he asked for more than $800,000 from Jackson County in the form of grants and a loan, but later downsized the dollar request.

Swain County has contributed $25,000 to help the railway, and the Swain County Tourism Development Authority has kicked in another $25,000, said Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker.

“It’s an economic engine for Bryson City,” Walker said in explanation of the willingness in Swain County to fund a private, for-profit enterprise. “I call it our Harrah’s.”

That would be a reference to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the money machine for the neighboring Cherokee Indian Reservation.

The railway recently bought an old steam engine — which is currently in Maine — and wants to put it in service along with its diesel-powered engines. Harper said the money from the county would help make that vision a reality.

In return for the loan from the county, the train in exchange says it will run 110 to 120 days of service each year out of Dillsboro.  

Harper told commissioners the excursions would create 15 to 20 new jobs in Jackson County, and bring in least 20,000 visitors annually to the tourism-dependent town.

Dillsboro served as the headquarters of Great Smoky Mountains Railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train pulled out in 2008.

Last year the Great Smoky Mountains Railway began limited, seasonal trips out of Dillsboro again. The company said in January that Dillsboro was put back on the schedule because the scenic little town of about 220 residents is a drawing card for the business. Currently, the train is advertising excursions from Bryson City to Dillsboro five days a week during the summer and four days a week during fall, according to its online schedule.

Dillsboro leaders would like to cement more spots in the train’s schedule.

According to draft minutes of the April 11 Dillsboro town board meeting, Mayor Mike Fitzgerald told his fellow board members, “Jackson County commissioners would like the Dillsboro Board of Alderman to co-sign the loan, provided that the GSMR gives adequate collateral to cover such a loan. David Gates made motion that the board agrees to support the Jackson County commissioners, providing sufficient collateral is given by GSMR. The motion was seconded by Tim Parris, and passed with four ayes, one abstention.”

Interim County Manager Chuck Wooten said county commissioners have not taken any formal action to ask Dillsboro to co-sign at this point.

“However, informal discussions among the commissioners generated this concept as an idea,” he said. “I believe Chairman (Jack) Debnam asked Mayor Fitzgerald to poll his members to determine if this might be something they would consider. Based on their action, it appears they would endorse this action once they feel comfortable with the pledged collateral to secure the loan.”

The county hasn’t yet received a formal loan application from the railway, Wooten said, adding, however, “I suspect the commissioners will feel more at ease approving a loan if Dillsboro is willing to co-sign.”

Wooten has previously explained that the $95,176 grant would be used to restore and paint the steam locomotive and exterior of first-class coaches. Wooten said he intends to consider this grant in the upcoming fiscal-year county budget, which commissioners have final say over.

“We will discuss their grant request during upcoming budget discussions ...  I’m still hopeful I will have a budget document to submit to the commissioners on Monday, May 2,” he said.

The $322,000 revolving loan would pay for moving the newly purchased train from Maine to North Carolina. The county’s economic development arm manages the revolving loan fund. It would be up to county commissioners whether to approve the loan request.

Harper’s company, American Heritage Family Parks, owns two other tourist railroads in Colorado and Texas. Harper is one of the principle investors and owners of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley, which has been in bankruptcy for two years. Harper has made an effort to buy the park out of bankruptcy, but has been unable to secure financing. Harper at one point had lined up a loan using the railroad as collateral, but the deal fell through. A new deal is pending, which involved transferring 49-percent ownership in the railroad to a newly created corporation for the purpose of piecing together a Ghost Town rescue.

Bringing regular train service back to Dillsboro greatly depends on whether Jackson County commissioners come up with dollars to help restore a steam engine and bring it here from Maine, Kim Albritton, vice president and general manager of Great Smoky Mountains Railway, said this week.

The railway has reduced the amount of money it’s seeking from Jackson County taxpayers from more than $800,000 down to $95,176 in cash and $322,000 in the form of a loan.

Albritton stopped short this week of flatly calling a thumb’s down from the county a deal breaker, instead characterizing such a commission vote as making “it more difficult” for the company to proceed.

The railway recently bought an old steam engine — which is currently in Maine — and wants to put it in service along with its diesel-powered engines.

If the county will help with that goal, the train in exchange will run 110 to 120 days of service each year out of Dillsboro. This, railway owner Al Harper has said, would create 15 to 20 new jobs in Jackson County, and bring in least 20,000 visitors annually to the tourism-dependent town.

Until 2008, Dillsboro served as the headquarters of Great Smoky Mountains Railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train pulled out. It moved its headquarters and main depot to Bryson City and quit running excursions to Dillsboro, which languished as result.

More business in the form of train-riding tourists returned last year when the Great Smoky Mountains Railway began limited, seasonal trips out of Dillsboro again.

Interim County Manager Chuck Wooten, who received the new funding request from Great Smoky Mountains Railway in late March, said the $95,176 grant would be used to restore and paint the steam locomotive and exterior of first-class coaches. Wooten said he intends to consider this grant in the upcoming fiscal-year county budget, which commissioners have final say over.

The $322,000 revolving loan would pay for moving the newly purchased train from Maine to North Carolina. The county’s economic development arm manages the revolving loan fund. It would be up to county commissioners whether to approve the loan request. Wooten said he doubted this would take place until sometime later this month.

Private land in Dillsboro might spare the historic Monteith House site from becoming home to a turntable for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, part of a plan to return regular train service to this tourism-dependent town.

Kim Albritton, the railway’s vice president and general manager, confirmed railroad representatives will talk with private landowners about the possibility of using their land for a turntable instead of Monteith Park as originally proposed. That has not taken place yet, she said.

Without a turntable, engines must travel in reverse, pushing the train’s cars instead of pulling them, when making the return trip back to Bryson City after an excursion to Dillsboro.

Previous discussions had involved putting the turntable in front of the barn near the Monteith House. The old farmstead house faces the proposed turntable site just a few hundred yards away. It would change — if not stop — plans to renovate and turn the house into an Appalachian Women’s Museum. The museum would honor and recognize the contributions of Appalachian women to this region.

Dillsboro Mayor Mike Fitzgerald emphasized that town leaders had considered using the town-owned, historic Monteith Park as “a last resort” only.

That falls in line with stipulations from the state, which in 2004 gave Dillsboro $250,000 to help fund the park. State rules mandate the town must “explain in detail which sites have been evaluated and where they are located and why Monteith Park is the only alternative” for a train turntable, according to an email dated Feb. 24 received by the town from LuAnn Bryan, a consultant for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.

If the requirement to use “all practical alternatives” is met and no other site is viable, the town does have the state’s OK to let the train use Monteith Community Park, according to the email.

The turntable would then be built on about three-quarters of an acre. In return, the town would offer up two acres, known as the Vanderwoude property, for recreational development, according to town documents. The town would be required to replace the lost parkland.

Dillsboro resident Emma Wertenberger, who is heading up efforts to turn Monteith House into a museum, said she and other committee members haven’t given up on the idea.

“We still hope to have a home at the Monteith homestead,” she said.

Great Smoky Mountains Railway this week promised to return to Dillsboro in a big way, on this condition: Jackson County must come up with $817,176.

“We need to explore how we can work together and get that train here, and market it together,” railroad owner Alan Harper told county commissioners.

Taxpayers’ dollars would:

• Pay for moving a train set from Maine ($322,000 in the form of a grant).

• Restore and paint the locomotive and exterior coaches ($95,176, also a grant).

• Install a turntable in Dillsboro’s Monteith Park ($250,000 in the form of a loan).

• $150,000 in annual tourism advertising funds (in the form of a matching grant).

Until 2008, Dillsboro served as the headquarters of Great Smoky Mountains Railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train moved its administrative office and main depot to Bryson City. Dillsboro languished in the wake of that decision. Last year, and even more this year, Great Smoky Mountains Railway did begin limited, seasonal excursions out of Dillsboro again.

Now this news — 110 to 120 days of train service each year, 15 to 20 new jobs created in Jackson County, low estimates of at least 20,000 visitors to the tourism-dependent town, and the possibility of turning Monteith Park into a train destination in its own right, too. Harper said he has a steam engine that doesn’t work, and he’d be willing to possibly park it at Monteith. And, another sweetener — an unused metal bridge the town could use to span the creek in Monteith Park. All that for just more than $800,000, Harper said.

County commissioners clearly were not surprised by the request or presentation (the details were included in a pre-assembled packet for commissioners and reporters. Plus, Harper said he’d been discussing the deal with Dillsboro town leaders “individually,” and the possibility of a turntable had been bubbling about the town of just more than 200 residents for the past few weeks).

A turntable would do just what it says — serve as a means of turning the train around. Town leaders, Harper said, have indicated they believe Monteith Park would work for that purpose.

The train excursions would, he said, be first class using a steam engine. Commissioner Charles Elders asked when they would start if this deal is struck, and Harper said possibly by mid-summer. Commissioners took no action, with Chairman Jack Debnam telling Harper the county looks forward to working with the railroad.

In many ways, Brian Hockman and wife Carrie of Claymates, a “paint your own pottery experience,” serve as the perfect business portrait of the new Dillsboro.

This is Dillsboro post the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. A Dillsboro that maybe hasn’t exactly risen from the ashes like some resurrected phoenix, but a town that has, nonetheless, persevered and survived.

Claymates is located in the downtown section on Front Street: within a hop, skip and a jump of the railroad tracks that run through the town. The train once served as a major business conduit, disgorging crowds of tourists — about 60,000 a year — into the waiting arms of merchants.

Brian and Carrie Hockman came to Dillsboro a short time after the tourist train pulled out in 2008. In the midst of the recession, the train consolidated business operations to its new headquarters in nearby Bryson City and canceled passenger service to Dillsboro. The train moved just one county away, but the shift might as well have been to the moon as far as Dillsboro merchants were concerned.

People lost jobs — 22 full-time railroad employees and a handful of part-time workers were stranded. Stores lost money. Businesses went elsewhere.

So why did Brian and Carrie Hockman settle on the economically (and for merchants, emotionally) depressed Dillsboro during such a bleak period?

The rent was low in those just post-train days, and Pennsylvania native Brian Hockman was eager to start a business showcasing his photography. As a sideline, his wife started Claymates, a pick-out-a-cute-porcelain-figure-and-paint-it-yourself business — and the sideline became the mainline as the couple built a successful store. Brian and Carrie Hockman don’t depend heavily on tourists and walk-ins. Claymates instead relies more on events such as birthday parties, girls-nights out and office parties.

So recent news that the Great Smoky Mountains Railway has once again expanded seasonal excursions into Dillsboro doesn’t matter that much to Brian Hockman. Truth be told, he really just hopes his rent won’t increase as a result.

Other business owners in this small Jackson County town are more excited than that. But they, too, remain cautious — any help during these hard economic times is, of course, welcome news. Just be clear on this: Dillsboro won’t ever put all of its eggs back in that one basket again.


Here’s the deal

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad started four-hour roundtrip excursions from Bryson City to Dillsboro in January, and plans to continue them through this month. Tourists riding the train have an hour-and-a-half layover to wander the town.

On occasion, that layover means an extra customer or two for Jill Cooper at Haircuts by Jill on Front Street. Men who decide they need a trimming and a place to sit while their wives shop, she said, or men ordered in by their wives who want to visit other stores without them hovering nearby. Additionally, some of the train’s employees get their hair cut while in Dillsboro.

But even though the direct business benefit might be of marginal importance for Haircuts by Jill, Cooper is very happy the train is back — no matter for how briefly, or for such a short layover.

“It’s exciting,” she said.

The train has brought back a certain liveliness missing since it left, said Cooper, who lives — as well as works — in Dillsboro.

Limited runs by Great Smoky Mountains Railroad started back up in 2010, with the train bringing tourists in June, July, August and October. Peak season summer and fall runs were a good sign, but trips in the winter are an even better indication that Dillsboro might again secure a place in the train’s long-range regional vision.

“It is a bigger deal because we are coming in the winter,” agreed Sarah Conley, marketing manager for Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

It turns out Dillsboro’s character was popular with train riders, and that had a lot to do with the train’s decision to restore passenger service to the town.

“Dillsboro is such a quaint little lively town, and it has a lot of strongholds. It is an added bonus for riders to have a destination. When they get off they say, ‘Oh this is neat. It is a little quaint historic town,’” Conley said.

Additionally, the 32-mile roundtrip from Bryson City to Dillsboro has sights that interest most riders, Conley said. There is the 836-foot Cowee Tunnel to pass through, The Fugitive movie site to eyeball, and the scenic Tuckasegee River to enjoy.   

“Another thing that is really neat on the way to Dillsboro is they go by the train shop where our engineers work on the trains,” Conley said.

While the recession is still taking its toll on tourism, Conley said ridership was up last year compared to 2009.

Many of the passengers on these winter excursions are day-trippers, the marketing manager said. People who have visited Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and are looking for more things to do. Tourists who come over the Smokies by way of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., for an opportunity to ride the train, and North Carolina residents who are in search of something to do on the weekend.

In early January, new customers came into Twin Oaks Gallery and told owner Susan Leveille they had learned about her shop after visiting Dillsboro via a ride on the train.

“That was more than I had heard in a long time,” Leveille said of the train-Dillsboro connection.

Twin Oaks Gallery, which features works in pottery, glass, iron and such by local artisans and craftspeople, isn’t in direct sight of the train tracks. That means Leveille can’t be sure exactly how much business Great Smoky Mountains Railroad funnels into her store — she must rely on customers to tip her off.

“In concept, though, I think it is a great thing they are making trips here and connecting with Dillsboro again,” the longtime business owner said. “It can’t be anything but good for us.”

Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this report.

One of the more traditional holiday experiences in Western North Carolina takes place in Dillsboro the first two weekends of December.

Each year, this small mountain village is awash in the glow of white paper bag luminaries during the Dillsboro Festival of Lights & Luminaries.

This year’s festival is Dec. 3-4 and Dec. 10-11. On these special Friday and Saturday evenings, the town’s merchant “elves” illuminate the streets and sidewalks with more than 2,500 luminaries. The merchants also flip the switches on strands of small white lights trimming the town’s buildings, many of which date to the 1800s.

Once Dillsboro is aglow, carolers fill the streets, musicians stroll through town playing Christmas favorites, and Santa visits with children at Town Hall. Shopkeepers add to the merriment by staying open late and serving holiday treats with hot cider and cocoa.

New in 2010 are horse-drawn carriage rides on both weekends, and performances by the Smoky Mountain High School Show Choir on Dec. 3 and Dec. 4.

“Folks tell us every year how genuine this event is, and how much they enjoy it,” said Julie Spiro, tourism director for Jackson County. “It’s a nice combination of cool winter weather and warm holiday spirit.”

The Festival of Lights & Luminaries begins each evening at dusk and runs until 9 p.m. There is no admission charge and lodging is plentiful with more than half of Jackson’s County guest rooms located in Dillsboro or within a 15-minute drive.

For information, go to, or call the Jackson County Visitors Center at 800.962.1911.

The town of Dillsboro will host Western Carolina University faculty, staff and students during a special event called “Destination: Dillsboro!” on Thursday, Nov. 18, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Designed to show Dillsboro’s appreciation for WCU, the event will feature merchants staying open late and offering free samples and discounts especially for the WCU community.

The evening will feature a raffle drawing for numerous prizes from Dillsboro merchants for faculty and staff and a scavenger hunt using the social network Twitter for students.

To be eligible for the prizes, faculty and staff will enter their registration forms into a basket at the Jarrett House, which is serving as headquarters for the event. Registration forms are being sent through the WCU e-mail system, and prizes will be drawn throughout the evening. Once visitors register at the Jarrett House, they will be given a new holiday shopping guide that provides an updated map of the town and ideas for holiday gift giving from Dillsboro.

Mayor Mike Fitzgerald will be greeting guests and making an official declaration of appreciation for WCU at the Jarrett House at 6 p.m.

“We’re looking forward to a great night,” Fitzgerald said. “The town will be decorated in purple and gold, but we’re rolling out the red carpet for the Catamounts. We hope WCU folks and their families will come down — if only for a little while — to check out the shops and eat at the restaurants. We’ve made a special effort to provide free child care and activities for the kids, so the whole family can enjoy the event.”

For WCU personnel with children, volunteers will provide free child care services at the Jarrett Memorial Baptist Church on Church Street. There will be 20 spots available from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and 20 spots from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Children ages 3 to 12 are eligible and advance reservations are required. Art activities, games and snacks will be provided. To RSVP for child care, contact Casey Hodges at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Destination: Dillsboro! is the latest event in a recent partnership forged the town and WCU. The overall goal of the partnership is economic revitalization. Numerous faculty, staff and students from across the university are working on a variety of projects including small business counseling, survey research, marketing, public relations, broadcasting, arts, entertainment and special events.

For more information about the Dillsboro/WCU partnership or any of the Nov. 18 activities, contact Betty Farmer, special assistant to the chancellor for Dillsboro, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 828.227.3804.

— By Matthew Hoagland, WCU

The Western North Carolina Pottery Festival expects record attendance this fall as the juried festival continues to attract master potters from across the U.S.

This year’s event will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 6, on the streets of downtown Dillsboro.

The festival features 42 clay artists, each demonstrating their craft throughout the day; roughly half of the potters hail from the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, while the other half are from as away as: Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio.

“The festival has taken off higher than we ever imagined,” said organizer Joe Frank McKee of Dillsboro’s Tree House Pottery. “Attendance increases each year and the potters who apply get better and better. What started as a local pottery festival has blossomed into more of a regional and national pottery festival.”

Admission is $3 and includes a ticket for a day-long raffle. Children under 12 are admitted free.

828.631.5100, or For lodging information call the Jackson County Visitors Center at 800.962.1911.

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