“If it should come to pass, it would be wonderful for us,” said Mike Fitzgerald, Dillsboro’s mayor.
It’s all a big “if” at this point, with no agreement yet signed and several variables concerning lease payment, water/sewer access and the land’s flood designation still floating.
“While the outlook for potential development remains optimistic, we currently have no formal agreements in place, thus it is premature to make any announcements or to offer further comment at this time,” Jackson County Economic Development Director Rich Price said in a written statement.
Price originally approached NOC last year about the possibility of building an outfitter location along the Tuckasegee River. The piece of land in question is a 17.65-acre county-owned parcel that covers both banks of the river near its intersection with U.S. 441. When the Dillsboro Dam was still in existence, Duke Energy owned the property, but when the dam came down in 2010 it gave the property to Dillsboro. In 2014, Jackson County purchased the land for the appraised market value of $350,000.
Nothing is set in stone, but the deal NOC and Jackson County had been discussing involved a 10-year lease in which NOC would pay $1 per year for the first three years and a percentage of its revenues — perhaps something like 3 or 5 percent — thereafter.
On the now-vacant property, NOC would likely have an outfitter store, a restaurant or some type of food service, rentals for water sports like kayaking and tubing, and potentially even a zipline, said County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. Besides being economically advantageous to Jackson County, the location would compliment NOC’s primary location on the Nantahala River Gorge. The company also has retail and trip-booking locations in Gatlinburg and Asheville.
“The problem is that it (the Nantahala River location) is mainly toward people who are older in age and can get into that river that moves pretty swift and is pretty cold,” McMahan said. “At Dillsboro, the water is much warmer. It’s much slower and it will lend itself to activities that families can also take part in.”
Outfitters in the Nantahala Gorge require rafting customers to weigh at least 60 pounds due to the river’s strength, while outfitters on the Tuckasegee require children to weigh 40 pounds. That opens up a lot more trips for families with younger children.
Regardless of what happens with the NOC deal, the county has some work ahead if it wants the property to be used for any kind of economic development.
One side of the river has sewer access, and one side has water access, but it would take some doing to get both utilities on both sides.
Further, the property contains both a floodway and a floodplain. While floodway development is more restrictive than floodplain development, both designations cause complication for construction projects. However, those designations go back to the days of the Dillsboro Dam, which caused water to back up and pool much more than it does now. The county will need to have a hydrology study done to determine if that designation should change.
“All that is going to happen regardless of what happens down there (with NOC),” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan.
With a population of less than 300, Dillsboro’s claim to fame had long been its status as home base for the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. When the train moved its headquarters to Bryson City in 2008, it took with it the ready-made foot traffic that had filled Dillsboro’s streets and shops. Jumpstarting the town’s economy — whether by bringing the train back or getting some other anchor back in — has been a frequent topic of conversation since. While the town is doing much better now than in the years immediately following the train’s departure — storefronts on Front Street will be full this year, Fitzgerald said — there’s still plenty of room for upward motion.
“Anything, whether it’s what was reported or any other entity that has a lot of money or a lot of draw, is good for the county,” Fitzgerald said.
According to an economic impact study completed by Steve Ha of Western Carolina University, if the NOC project came to pass it would provide a significant injection of visitors and spending to the area. The study projects 5,535 visitors in the first year, with visitation rising to 33,113 by year 10. By the end of the lease, NOC would create $5.8 million annually in direct spending, $8.6 million in ripple-effect spending — called multiplied spending — and $372,000 in revenue from sales and property taxes.
“It sounds like a very promising venture,” McMahan said.
NOC was set to finalize the deal with the county in a special-called meeting March 3, but officials cancelled that meeting after media reports last week that made the negotiations public. After the story published, NOC contacted the county asking to cancel the meeting. The company told the county that there was still more work and negotiation to do before signing on the dotted line.
“It was a premature announcement, and we still have some details to iron out,” McMahan said.
While the meeting is cancelled, that doesn’t mean the deal is off. McMahan is hopeful that it will move forward with a rescheduled time sometime in the next couple of months.
“Assuming this project goes forward, and I have no reason to believe it’s not, they want to start work sometime this summer,” McMahan said.