The issue at hand has been the railroad’s request for the town to close Fry Street for 56 days during the Polar Express rides this winter, but the broader issue that’s come to light is the local business community’s discontent for how its local government is operating.
“People buy property here and retire here, but then they get a wake up call in Bryson City when they find out a handful of people have control of the whole ambiance of why they came here,” said Stan Temple, a local property developer. “A whole county is bearing the burden of a few votes.”
The Fry Street issue drummed up support from many local businesses that recognize the economic impact the train has on Bryson City. For the last several months, business owners packed the town hall to show support for the Fry Street closure.
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The board of aldermen originally denied the train’s request for a complete street closure, and rumors began spreading about the train looking to take the Polar Express event back to Dillsboro for safety reasons. Two weeks later the town reversed its decision and allowed the full closure of Fry Street with a few stipulations.
However, business owners don’t feel like the problem is even close to being resolved.
Anyone who has been to a Bryson City Board of Aldermen meeting can attest to the fact that the setting is not conducive to public involvement.
The board holds its regular meetings in the lobby area at town hall, which is converted into a makeshift boardroom twice a month. In addition to the board members sitting around a table, there is room for about 10 chairs to accommodate the audience. Most of the time local reporters and a couple of residents there to address a water leak problem occupy those chairs, but lately 10 chairs hasn’t been enough.
While business owners were pleased the town finally allowed for the closure and that the Polar Express would remain in Bryson City, the entire process has left a bad taste in their mouths. It was the first time many business owners had gotten involved in town politics and now they feel obligated to get involved, encourage others to get involved and make some changes.
Tim Goodwin, owner of Watershed Cabins, said he was frustrated by the way town business is being conducted — residents and businesses weren’t allowed to address the board until the end of the meeting after decisions had already been made, the board had little public discussion about issues and town hall didn’t have room to accommodate all the people who wanted to participate in the board meeting.
“I understand they have to keep decorum at the meetings and follow protocol — they don’t want an angry mob at meetings — but they have to give us adequate opportunity to speak. We have a voice and we want to be heard,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin said he also sent an email to the mayor and the four aldermen regarding Fry Street but didn’t get a response from any of them. In a town with a population of less than 1,500, Goodwin said he would expect a higher level of accountability.
After seeing how the Fry Street issue was handled, Temple said he now sees why residents and businesses don’t attend the town meetings.
“The general public don’t go to the meetings and so they just hear gossip around town,” he said.
Joe Rowland, owner of Nantahala Brewing, is one business owner who has been hesitant to get involved until now. With more than 50 employees between his brewery operation and a new restaurant, he’s had his hands full, but he’s quickly realizing how the town government can impact the future of his businesses and his community.
Ben King, co-owner of Bryson City Outdoors, said one reason local business owners don’t get involved in town politics is because they don’t live in the town limits and can’t vote in town elections. But as stakeholders in downtown Bryson City, their opinions should still matter when it comes to the board’s decisions.
“The idea is to change people’s sphere of thinking to get them to think more globally. All the businesses make a difference. Valuing the opinions of businesses even though we may not be voters is important,” King said.
The Swain County Chamber of Commerce did help get a downtown merchants association started more than a year ago to increase communication and partnerships between local businesses. King is a member of the association and said it’s been helpful in giving merchants a collective voice on issues like the Fry Street closure, which the association supported.
But if the current board of aldermen is unwilling to listen to the business community, King said the next step is to get new leadership in place during the next election. Mayor Tom Sutton and Aldermen Jim Gribble and Heidi Woodard were all elected to four-year terms in 2015, but Aldermen Rick Bryson and Janine Crisp will be up for election this fall. Bryson and Crisp both voted against the full Fry Street closure and instead favored a partial closure during an April 3 meeting.
At an April 17 meeting, Crisp made a motion to allow the complete closure pending negotiations with the railroad for the easement at 601 Bryson City Walk. The motion passed unanimously.
Even though the town and train worked out a compromise for the street closure this year, Rowland is certain this won’t be the end of the Fry Street fiasco. The town only agreed to the complete street closure this winter once the train was willing to grant the town an easement it needs to purchase and access a piece of property on Bryson Walk. Rowland said a more permanent plan is needed to prevent this issue from being brought up again next year.
“I see both sides of the issue but if it’s not a long-term solution then this isn’t over — not if we have to vote on it every year,” he said.
Heart of the matter
If the chamber of commerce, the merchants association and a majority of downtown businesses support closing Fry Street for the Polar Express, then the question remains — why did the aldermen deny the request?
“There’s a lot of voters who have the town council’s ears who think the train gets and gets and doesn’t give back to the community,” King said.
Other than Alderman Heidi Woodard, who has been a supporter of closing Fry Street, board members said they didn’t think the safety concerns were enough to warrant the closure. They also were unhappy with the way the railroad has handled the street closure in the past. By putting up blockades on both ends of the street and erecting tents for Polar Express activities, the railroad blocked visibility to the merchants on Fry Street.
It’s not a new argument among locals. Even though the train helps extend the tourist town’s season and brings more than 80,000 people a year to Bryson City, the railroad company is based in Colorado. King agrees the train could do a better job at letting people know what all it does for the community, but the fact is the train is currently the main draw to downtown.
Goodwin said he wasn’t in favor of the Swain County Tourism Development Authority providing funding for the train — a private enterprise — to pay for the restoration of the old steam engine because it was basically funding $700,000 worth of operational costs. The county took out a low-interest loan for the project and is paying it back over 15 years with tourism tax dollars.
“It didn’t sit right with me — they should have had more strings attached — but overall it’s good to have the steam engine,” Goodwin said. “And it fits in with the history of our community — it fits with our culture.”
King said train ridership almost doubles on days the steam engine is running, which means more people in downtown.
Rowland said many residents don’t like the train simply because it causes an inconvenience for them. When the train comes through downtown in the afternoon, it blocks traffic on Everett Street.
“People get upset because they only see the train when it comes back through town at 3:40 when school lets out,” he said. “They don’t like to be backed up in traffic — it inconveniences them for 3 to 4 minutes a day. It’s a short-sighted concern.”
King said perhaps that’s one problem that could possibly be solved by rerouting people through town, but two-way communication needs to occur to make it happen.
“Moving forward if we could look at it as a marriage where both sides are going to have to make compromises, together we grow as one,” he said. “We have to be willing to listen to each other and figure out a common goal.”
Temple said he would like to see a nonpolitical forum for businesses and residents to come together and talk about these issues. He’d also like to see the community utilize the talents and resources of the people who have moved to Bryson City. As a developer, he said the retirees, entrepreneurs and half-timers who come to Bryson City are eager to offer resources and expertise.
But first, Temple said, the people of Swain County need to let bygones be bygones. Locals already have distrust for government that dates back to when the federal government seized most of Swain’s land to create the national park and Fontana Dam.
“There’s old grudges and people don’t trust the government,” he said. “Take, take, take is all we’ve ever seen, but we need a shift or how can we progress?”
Swain County’s economy has become more reliant on tourism and outdoor recreation during the last few years as manufacturing jobs continue to dwindle. With no hope that industrial jobs will make a comeback, King said the community needs to embrace the tourism industry and work together to improve it.
“Even though we’re tourism-based — it all works together,” he said. “If there’s no tourism, there’s no people to provide jobs for people to live here and those people are buying gas and groceries and need services.”
Rowland agreed that tourists spend money in the community, which enables the county and town to keep taxes low. They build houses and create jobs and eventually retire here to their mountain homes, which add to the tax base.
Goodwin said most of the town used to shut down between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the Polar Express has kept businesses going through January. He doesn’t want to see that season shorten again.
“My housekeepers work hard through November and December because of the railroad and they make good money,” he said. “We’re busy when it used to be dead.”
Instead of trying to hinder a tourism business like the railroad that helps to extend the tourism season, Rowland said the town should be asking the train what other special events it can do to bring more people to Bryson City during the off season.
“That’s all we’ve got right now,” Rowland said. “We should be discussing with the train what can we do for January and February to expand it further.”
While some people are afraid Bryson City could turn into an overdeveloped tourism nightmare like Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, Temple said that could never happen because only 13 percent of the county land isn’t owned by the federal government.
King agreed that no one wanted to see Bryson City change from what has drawn people here in the first place, which is the heritage and history, small town feel and the hospitality from locals.
“I don’t think any of us want to see locals feeling displaced — that’s what makes it feel like a community,” King said. It’s why people come here and what makes me feel at home here.”