Bryson City merchants can expect some relief from the downtown parking crunch once the old Swain County Jail is torn down in the next two weeks.
The crumbling jail was abandoned a couple of years ago for a new multimillion-dollar facility since it no longer met state codes. County commissioners have opted for the low-cost option of converting the old jail site into a public parking lot once the building is demolished.
“There is a need for downtown parking, especially in the summertime,” said Commissioner David Monteith. “A lot of merchants don’t have a place to park.”
“You’ve got to run yourself to death to find a parking space,” said Commissioner Glenn Jones. “It’s no different from any other town. Parking is always at a premium.”
Tourists riding the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad exacerbate the problem. Some train riders hunt for free on-street parking rather than paying to park in the train’s lot, tying up valuable downtown spots for hours.
There could be up to 20 additional parking spaces to accommodate downtown patrons now, and also future visitors to a museum planned nearby.
“We’re going to need a lot more parking for that project,” said Kevin King, Swain county manager. “The county doesn’t need another building.”
Commissioners are also planning ahead for a greenway with picnic tables at the edge of the parking lot along the river.
The historic courthouse, which is adjacent to the old jail, will one day house a heritage museum, along with a visitor’s center and store run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit that supports the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by operating bookstores in the park’s visitor centers.
The visitor’s center will take up about a quarter of the first floor of the old courthouse, according to Monteith. The cultural museum will showcase the history of Swain County and its people, while the visitor’s center will increase the nonprofit’s presence in North Carolina.
But with the courthouse dating back to 1908, major repairs are needed to render the building safe for use. Monteith says the upstairs floor must be taken out and rebuilt, according to a study done early on in the project.
“That is why we had to literally stop before we got started,” said Monteith.
“It’s a laundry list of repairs and improvements,” said Commissioner Steve Moon. “But the historic value of that building is something that we cannot ignore. We need to preserve that all we can and do the best we can with it.”
King estimates it will cost about $800,000 to renovate the courthouse, significantly lower than the $4 million originally estimated. For now, the county has $150,000 in its hands, much of which came through grants from the GSMA, King said.
Several other grant applications are still awaiting responses.