Counties and towns in the region are sparring over a highway sign that points the way to Cherokee, each hoping to capture a share of the 3.5 million annual visitors en route to the tribe’s casino by bringing that traffic past their own doorstep.
There are two routes to Cherokee — something any tourist could figure out using the Internet or an in-car GPS unit. However, only one route has a highway directional sign pointing the way to Cherokee, namely the route through Maggie Valley.
Jackson County officials are urging the North Carolina Department of Transportation to post a second highway sign letting travelers know they don’t have to get off the highway and head through Maggie but can continue on past Waynesville and Sylva to reach Cherokee as well.
Jackson sees itself as the big winner from such a sign but has appealed to Waynesville to join it in its request.
“We thought Waynesville might also be the beneficiary of that (sign),” said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.
Currently, Cherokee-bound tourists coming off Interstate 40 are funneled toward Maggie on U.S. 19 just before they get to Waynesville.
Waynesville leaders discussed the issue at their town board meeting last week but postponed a decision until next year.
Neither Town Manager Lee Galloway nor Mayor Gavin Brown had spoken with officials in Maggie Valley about their take on the matter. However, at least one board member is against siding with Jackson County over Maggie Valley.
“I don’t feel like we should go against our own,” said board member Gary Caldwell.
As for Maggie Valley, officials said they had not heard about or had only heard tell of the possible signage.
Tim Barth, Maggie Valley’s town manager, said he was not aware that Jackson County had reached out to Waynesville looking for support. However, he said he would oppose such a sign.
“We would prefer that they come through Maggie Valley,” Barth said.
If the sign was erected, Maggie Valley would likely see fewer people driving down its main drag – which could further harm tourist businesses that are already struggling.
“Obviously, less people would be coming through the town then, and we depend on people coming through the town,” Barth said.
People traveling to Cherokee sometimes stop at restaurants or stores along the way, which is the main reason why Jackson County wants the sign — to cash in on some of those travelers’ checks.
“Our whole goal was to increase traffic (to the county),” Wooten said.
For leaders in Cherokee and within the Eastern Band, having two routes to the reservation is about keeping customers happy.
“It’s important for our customers to have a choice,” said Robert Jumper, the tribe’s travel and tourism manager. “We want people to be able to come, in their most comfortable way, to Cherokee.”
If visitors are not happy with a particular route, they might not come back, said Jumper, who expressed support for the sign. He added that the additional route, which runs past Waynesville, would benefit both Haywood and Jackson counties.
When people call the Cherokee visitor center, they are directed through Maggie Valley or Jackson County based on their driving preferences.
Although vehicles traverse fewer road miles on the route through Maggie Valley, the low speed limits and a windy, two-lane road makes the scenic drive longer than expected, including a rather lengthy dead zone for cell phone users.
“The most direct route, of course, is through Maggie,” said Teresa Smith, head of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, it’s a straight shot (to Cherokee), and a majority of our businesses are on this main thoroughfare.”
However, the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway through Jackson County is generally the quickest route, a divided-highway with a faster flow of traffic, but drivers miss out on the views when going over Soco Gap in Maggie.
Jackson County has applied for a similar sign in the past, but nothing happened.
While the DOT has indicated that it would be possible to place a second sign near the existing one at Exit 103 on the by-pass, it is still unknown whether it will actually happen, Wooten said.
Hoping to sway the transportation department, the county has applied to others for support. Representatives from Cherokee and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have signed their names to letters that indicate their support for the new sign.
“We feel that giving the motoring public an additional option of four-lane travel will provide better flow of traffic and enhance safety on both routes to Cherokee,” reads the letter signed by Jumper; Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band; Jason Lambert, the tribe’s executive director of economic development; and Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.
The letter also states that the route through Jackson County provides drivers with a “direct, unimpeded” road to Cherokee.
A similar letter written by Jack Debnam, Chairman of the Jackson County commission, states that the expressway route offers an alternative that is easy for any type of vehicle to travel, during any type of weather.
Smith admitted that ice and snow have made the trip over Soco Gap hazardous on occasion but said that the road is nowhere near impassable.
“Vehicles have traveled it for years,” Smith said. “It’s not like it’s impossible. It’s not like it’s dangerous.”
Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, declined to comment on the topic until she could meet with other members of the tourism board.