“You made the wrong decision,” she yelled to Alderman Rick Bryson as he walked to his car following the brief board of aldermen meeting.
As vice president and general manager of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Albritton has been fighting the same battle with the town for several years, and this year she lost.
In a 3-1 vote, the town board denied the railroad’s request to close Fry Street in downtown Bryson City for 56 days from November to January during the train’s popular Polar Express excursions.
Fry Street — a short thoroughfare with the train depot sitting to the left and several merchants to the right — is where passengers congregate before and after a train ride. Albritton says the street closure during the train’s busiest event is needed for safety precautions.
“I just don’t understand the board’s logic in denying this request,” she said. “There are 84,000 people getting on and off the train during Polar Express — on Saturdays that’s five trains a day. This is a matter of public safety.”
The town boardroom was packed full of people eagerly awaiting the town’s final decision on the closure. The Swain County Chamber of Commerce has been encouraging its members to show support at the meeting for the train’s request as the Polar Express rides are a huge tourism draw, but Mayor Tom Sutton made it clear at the beginning of the discussion that he was not going to allow public comment on the topic. Supporters and opponents did have a chance to speak at the town’s March 20 meeting.
Alderman Heidi Woodard was the only supporter of the railroad’s request. While there haven’t been any major pedestrian accidents yet, she said she’d hate to make a decision that could increase the chances of someone getting injured.
“If you have three trains running that night — that’s 700 people getting off the train and 700 people waiting to board — that’s 1,400 people milling around in this area,” she said.
Woodard motioned to approve the closure of Fry Street but it failed for lack of a second.
Bryson then read a prepared statement before suggesting a partial closure of the street as a compromise to appease the railroad as well as the other merchants on Fry Street who have concerns about the closure affecting their business traffic.
Contrary to statements made at the March 20 meeting, Bryson said the town had no desire or authority to interfere with a legally conducted business and had no intentions of preventing the Polar Express event from happening.
“I feel comfortable speaking for other members of the board when I say that we are enthusiastic supporters of the Polar Express event,” he said. “It’s a boost to the prosperity of the town, and it is not our intent to impede it in any way.”
However, Bryson said without documented evidence that an accident has occurred on Fry Street and with the minimum traffic on the small street, he wasn’t willing to completely close the street again to the potential detriment of the adjacent merchants. He said the town had already improved the conditions on Fry Street by putting up better markers and installing two safety crosswalks.
“What would likely be harmed, however, are the businesses that are located on the south side of Fry Street. In the past, they have recorded an average of 30 percent falloff in their business when Fry Street was closed for Polar Express,” Bryson said.
Bryson City Attorney Fred Moody said he felt the need to advise the board, though he said it wasn’t his place to say anything as their attorney.
“But if a business can’t make a living with 84,000 people passing by on foot, then something is wrong with their business model,” he said, with applause from the audience.
Bryson also followed up on a claim made at the March 20 meeting in which he said Albritton implied the railroad could lose its Polar Express licensing agreement with Warner Brothers if the town refused to close Fry Street during the event. He contacted the vice president of the division of Warner Brothers that controls the license for Polar Express directly to ask about the issue.
“When asked if she knew of Fry Street or had any concerns with the implied safety issues there, her response indicated that she did not know where Fry Street was, even though she had personally been to Bryson City and had ridden the train,” he said. “This implied threat has now been exposed for what it is — a red herring.”
Bryson proposed closing off the front entrance of Fry Street that faces Everett Street but leaving the entrance from Depot Street open. The partial closure on the L-shaped street would give the railroad room for staging its passengers and also allow pedestrians to access the merchants on Fry Street.
“A level playing field for all is vital to maintaining our community standard of fairness,” Bryson said. “This board is charged with holding to that standard, not aiding one enterprise at the expense of others.”
The board approved Bryson’s motion, though Woodard was opposed.
While some residents and merchants in Bryon City have accused the town and county government of giving special treatment to the railroad for many years, Albritton said she couldn’t understand why people would be against something that is an economic driver for Swain County.
“A rising tide floats all boats — everyone benefits from the Polar Express,” she said.
When asked about the Warner Brothers licensing, Albritton said the agent Bryson spoke to wasn’t in a position to respond to the safety concerns with Fry Street. Even though Bryson said the town wasn’t trying to interfere with a private business, she said, that is exactly what he and the board are doing.
“Rick (Bryson) wants an example of a pedestrian being hit before they’ll do something? That makes no sense,” she said.