The news of stalled talks between the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and Jackson County was met with mixed feelings in the little village of Dillsboro, which once served as the hub for the bustling scenic railroad.
The great Dillsboro train debate rolled on in Jackson County Monday with a public hearing this week on whether the county should give the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad $700,000 in exchange for the promise of more riders and tourists.
Jackson County is one step closer to giving money to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to outfit the scenic rail line with a refurbished steam engine in hopes of getting a tourist boost in return.
A mural project called “On Hallowed Ground” aims to honor the heritage of Dillsboro, showcase artistic talents and lend a hand in the revitalization of the village.
Since the headquarters of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad moved from Dillsboro to Bryson City in 2008, the little picturesque tourist village in Jackson County has been waiting for its gravy train to return.
Business in Dillsboro has continued to slow during the past few years, to the point that even the cash cow of video sweepstakes parlors pulled out after a brief run.
A couple of businesses have closed this year, including the Dillsboro Smokehouse Bar-B-Que — continuing a slow but steady exodus of shops in the three years since the tourist railroad once based in Dillsboro moved its operations to Bryson City.
In the two years since the Dillsboro Dam was torn down, the Tuckasegee River has become home to a growing number of aquatic species, from mussels to insects to fish, as natural river habitat has been restored.
“We’re certainly glad that it’s gone,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Mark Cantrell said last week. “The response was immediate.”
Duke Energy demolished the 12-foot high, 310-foot long dam in February 2010 as environmental mitigation for several other larger dams it operates in the region. Jackson County battled for seven years to keep the dam. It wanted to make the dam a centerpiece of a new public park and promenade, complete with walking paths, benches, fishing areas and river access. Plus, the county argued the dam was historically important to the community.
Duke, however, succeeded in removing the small and ancient dam as compensation for using the Tuck in its lucrative hydropower operations, which net the utility millions annually.
Duke’s contention that the river would be better off environmentally without the Dillsboro dam does seem to have come true, according to Cantrell.
“What we’re seeing now is the rebirth of that section of river and a confirmation of the decision to remove it. There’s no question about it — if you are an angler, boater, fish or bug, the Tuckasegee River is better with the Dillsboro Dam removed,” he said.
Jackson County trout fisherman Craig Green said that he supported the removal of the dam and has been happy to see the river return to its natural free-flowing state.
“Recovery is a strange word — it wasn’t that things were bad, but clearly the dam removal has enhanced the flow for the fish to move back and forth,” said Green, who is a past president of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River.
Cantrell described the physical shape of the former river as coming back in “a really impressive” manner.
The dam had turned a nearly mile-long stretch of the river behind it into a slow-moving backwater. The backwater was 310 feet wide — the same width as the dam — but the natural river bed is just 50 or so feet wide.
To Mark Singleton, a paddler in Sylva, the removal of the dam “was like unwrapping a big old Christmas present.” He couldn’t wait to see what the river’s natural contour would be like once it returned to its true form.
With the dam gone, boaters discovered a natural rock ledge below the surface where the dam used to be. The ledge doesn’t deter experienced kayakers, he said, but it is a bit too challenging for beginning boaters to use, so most bypass that section.
“It doesn’t get paddled a lot,” said Singleton, the director of American Whitewater, a national paddling and river advocacy group based in Sylva.
As part of the mitigation, Duke Energy was required to build a public river access just upstream from the former dam site. On one side of the river, there is a parking area, restrooms and a boat put-in. On the other side is a more primitive parking lot used mainly by fishermen.
James Jackson, owner of Tuckasegee Outfitters, said the removal of the dam and the subsequent growth in visitors coming to raft has been measureable. He estimated yearly business growth of 10 to 15 percent in terms of visitation.
“I think it is one of the larger tourist attractions in Jackson County,” Jackson said of rafting on the Tuckasegee.
By removing Dillsboro Dam, river species that had vacated the mile-long backwater behind the dam have now returned.
“One of a dam’s great impacts on a river is changing the area behind it from a free-flowing river to a reservoir, typically unsuitable habitat for most native stream species,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell said the dam acted as a barrier for a number of fish species, some that needed to go upriver to spawn. The sluggish water previously held behind the dam also acted as a barrier to certain fish, he said.
Twice a year in 2008, 2010 and 2011, biologists such as Cantrell monitored fish and other aquatic life, providing a before-and-after picture of how dam removal affected the river, especially at the site of the former backwater.
A species considered foremost during dam removal discussions was the Appalachian elktoe, a federally endangered mussel found only in Western North Carolina and a sliver of East Tennessee. The elktoe did not exist in the pooled-up backwater behind the dam, but monitoring has now found more than 140 elktoe mussels in the stretch, a sign the previously bisected population will reconnect, strengthening its long-term viability.
Before removal, the reservoir area was home to a diminished variety of macroinvertebrates. These insects, crayfish, and other animals without backbones form much of the life in a stream ecosystem. Just more than a year after the removal, macroinvertebrate diversity had increased, on par with sites upstream and downstream of the reservoir site. Among macroinvertebrates, biologists often pay special attention to mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies, which tend to be sensitive to water quality and are indicators of stream health.
Following removal, the diversity of these three insect groups increased dramatically in the former reservoir area — from a monitoring low of only two types in October 2008 to a high of 40 in May 2011. Using macroinvertebrate numbers and diversity as a measure of stream health, their return lifted this stretch of river from a “poor” quality rating in 2008 to a “good” ranking in May 2011.
“It all seems to be right on track,” Cantrell said.
As expected, fish diversity has responded somewhat more slowly to the dam removal, though biologists have noted the fish community is shifting to one typical of a Western North Carolina river, and the number of fish species dependent on flowing water is increasing. Additionally, in May 2011, biologists found an olive darter, a species of conservation concern for state and federal biologists, upstream of the dam site for the first time. The discovery could mean the fish took advantage of the dam’s removal to expand its range into upstream habitat.
Biologists also made an encouraging discovery downstream of the dam site. For several days in 2008 and 2009, biologists scoured the river downstream of the dam searching for mussels. They uncovered 1,137 Appalachian elktoes, which were all systematically tagged and moved upstream, away from potential harm from the demolition.
“Regarding the health and well-being of the Tuckasegee River, removing Dillsboro Dam has been a success,” said Hugh Barwick, Duke Energy biologist who managed the dam removal and biological monitoring. “The removal was a positive step in improving aquatic life in the Tuckasegee River in the vicinity of the former dam and reservoir.”
Sylva might not exactly be your classic college town — it's certainly not Chapel Hill or Boone. But efforts to bind this community with Western Carolina University have taken catamount-like bounds forward recently.
First, there's a "paint the towns purple" week running Monday, March 19, through Friday, March 23, with students and campus groups adorning storefronts in the official purple and gold colors of WCU. This decking out of Sylva, Dillsboro and the Cullowhee area foreshadows the official installation of new Chancellor David Belcher. He interviewed for the job just more than a year ago, and officially started last July, but the installation ceremony takes place Thursday, March 29.
Secondly, there's the fact that WCU's "First Couple," Chancellor Belcher and wife Susan, are on a first-name basis with many business owners in town. Previous sightings of top WCU administrators in town were as rare as spotting actual catamounts stalking Sylva's downtown district.
These days, though, there's a new top cat in town.
T.J. Eaves, president of WCU's Student Government Association, said that he believes the "paint the towns" purple event will help introduce more students to businesses off-campus, and help business owners in turn promote "purple pride."
"We're really looking forward to it," said Eaves, who added that "when students do get downtown, maybe they'll keep on going" after the event ends.
Randy Hooper and his wife, Debbie, own Bryson Farm Supply & Natural and Organic Food Store on N.C. 107 in Sylva. Hooper said that it's easy to underestimate the importance of WCU to the local economy, and to the financial wellbeing of his particular business as well.
"It would surprise you," Hooper said, explaining that in addition to selling food items to students and a complete inventory of food, garden and lawn items to faculty and staff, WCU's grounds crew buys much of the material for campus from Bryson Farm Supply.
"We get really good support from them," Hooper said, who wasn't sure yet what role his business might play in the paint the towns purple event.
Special deals will be offered all day March 26 by local merchants and restaurants to WCU students, faculty and staff who show their university identification cards.
Sylva town board member Lynda Sossamon, a WCU graduate and co-owner of Radio Shack, said in a prepared news release that the events are "a great reminder" of how important WCU is to Jackson County's communities.
"This is a great way to bring students, faculty and staff into Sylva and Dillsboro and to get members of the community, some of whom may have never set foot on campus, to go to campus," she said. "We truly are a part of WCU, and WCU is a part of Sylva and all of Jackson County."
Dieter Kuhn, who with his wife, Sheryl Rudd, owns Heinzelmännchen Brewery, is at something of a loss to describe the first time he met the Belchers. Chancellor Belcher promptly engaged Kuhn in a lengthy intricate conversation — in the German language.
"He is totally fluent," said Kuhn, a transplant from Germany to the U.S., still clearly delighted with the unexpected language and cultural exchange with WCU's man at the helm.
Students under 21 can get birch beer and root beer at Heinzelmännchen Brewery; graduate students and faculty and staff can get the real stuff, and often do, Rudd said when asked about how important a role WCU plays at this back street in Sylva business.
Hannah Armstrong, who started as a WCU intern at Heinzelmännchen Brewery and now works for the business part time after graduating two years ago, said Sylva has a long way to go before becoming a true college town, however.
"The students are unaware in general that Sylva is even here," the Greensboro transplant said, adding that most WCU students tend to travel to Asheville for shopping and entertainment. Or they simply build bonfires in their yards and drink beer beside them there, Armstrong said.
Rudd hopes to see that indifference change. She was attired appropriately in a purple-colored shirt, and was working at the brewery on Saturday in part to adorn the business' front window in the school's colors. Rudd said that simply by being who they are — friendly and unassuming — the Belchers have begun changing the equation between the university and the community. And for the better, at least in her view.
"It has been wonderful to see them in downtown as customers," Rudd said. "They have actual conversations with you."
This was not what the town's business owners experienced in the past. Previous WCU administrators have had little to do with the local community, at least not in a direct fashion via business owners or other regular folks. In addition to the visibility of the Belchers, relations between WCU and Jackson County have seen additional improvement thanks to the rebirth of WCU's retired financial officer Chuck Wooten, who is now serving as Jackson County's manager.
Bernadette Peters' experience with this suddenly friendly WCU has been similar to that of Rudd's and Kuhn's: extremely positive. Peters is the owner of City Lights Café, located just off of Sylva's Main Street on East Jackson Street. The café's official color logo-wise is purple, giving Peters a head start on the paint the towns purple event.
The café is a frequent hangout for university types. Some of WCU's information technology crew meets there on occasion; several graduate students routinely study in the café.
Peters spoke warmly of David and Susan Belcher and the couple's visible presence in the community that is now their home.
"They call you by name," Peters said in a tone of some wonderment.
March 26 is being set aside as a day of special events in honor of the installation of David Belcher as chancellor of Western Carolina University. The day will be capped by a program at Sylva's Jackson County Public Library at 7 p.m. called "Reflections on Place: An Evening with Distinguished Storytellers" featuring Cherokee storyteller Jerry Wolfe; former N.C. Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer; and Ron Rash, WCU's Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture and author of The New York Times best-seller Serena. It will be followed by a reception.
Jackson County is nowhere close to cementing a deal with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — one that would offer financial incentives in exchange for basing a steam engine tourist train in Dillsboro.
“It is far from a done deal,” said County Manager Chuck Wooten.
The county and the train have yet to agree on key factors.
The heart of the matter is a restored 1913 steam engine and passenger cars the railroad would like to put in service. But there’s a problem. The train is in Maine, and moving it here would cost $430,000, the railroad’s owner Al Harper estimates.
Harper wants the county to chip in half the cost of moving the train, as well as help secure an outside grant to build a turntable and a standing commitment to help with advertising costs.
Discussions have been informal and intermittent since last winter. The deal is primarily being brokered by a Dillsboro business owner and town board member, David Gates, who is acting as a de facto intermediary between Harper and county officials.
Gates recently drew up a draft contract and passed it around to the various parties. Harper lives out of state, but came to town for the train festival in Bryson City in late September. Gates took him a copy — and Harper promptly signed it.
The draft is not a version the county would endorse right now, however, and Wooten was flummoxed as to why Harper would have signed it prematurely.
There’s a key component missing, from the county’s perspective. Jackson County wants a written guarantee the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro for at least five years — not Bryson City, where the rest of its trains depart from.
“We want it to originate in Dillsboro, turn around in Bryson City and run back to Dillsboro,” Wooten said.
Shops would benefit more if people boarded and disembarked in Dillsboro, rather than merely rolling into town for a 90-minute layover before loading back up and heading out.
The trip from Bryson City to Dillsboro and back lasts four hours total, including the layover. Tickets start at $49 for adults and $29 for children age 2 to 12.
Dillsboro was once the main depot for the train, but the headquarters were moved to Bryson City in 2005. Then in 2008, the train yanked service to Dillsboro completely before partially restoring it the following year.
“When the train left, they lost a lot of traffic,” Wooten said of Dillsboro merchants.
County leaders are skittish that could happen again and want an assurance built into the contract. To pass muster with the county, the contract would have to require the train to keep the steam engine based in Dillsboro for five years. If it is moved elsewhere, the railroad would have to pay back a portion of the county’s grant, Wooten said.
Ideally, the train would promise to run a certain number of trips — such as two a day during summer and fall, and once a day during winter. But the county can’t expect the railroad to make such a commitment not knowing what the demand will be.
The draft contract circulated by Dillsboro stipulated that operations of the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro. But it also stated that “only the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad will have complete authority as it relates to all scheduling and operations of the train set originating out of Dillsboro.”
Such a disclaimer could make enforcement difficult if the railroad ever broke the promise.
Wooten also said if a deal was ever agreed on, the county would shy away from writing a check directly to the railroad. Instead, the county would want an invoice from the company involved in moving the steam engine and would pay it directly.
A must-have for the train to bring a steam engine to Dillsboro is a turntable, a piece of track that can be spun around to get the engine pointed back the right way when it reaches the end of the line.
The train apparently can’t afford the $200,000 to build one. The tiny town of Dillsboro can’t either. But the town will apply for a grant to cover the cost. A lot is riding on the outcome of that grant.
“No turntable, no steam engine,” Wooten said. “That would be a deal killer.”
The train currently runs on diesel engines. When the engine reaches the end of the line on excursions, it goes in reverse until it gets back to the depot in Bryson City.
Steam engines can’t go in reverse for long distances, however, making the turntable critical. The steam engine would run from Dillsboro to Bryson City, so another turntable would have to be installed there.
A turntable in Bryson City has been discussed for years. In 2005, the train got a $7.5 million low-interest loan from the Federal Railroad Administration, in part to construct turntables in Bryson City and Dillsboro. “How many years ago was that and where is the turntable?” asked Hanneke Ware, an inn owner in Jackson County who doesn’t think the county should give the railroad a grant. Wooten said the train apparently purchased the turntables but never installed them.
A portion of that loan was also for repairs to the track. But the majority was used to restructure existing debt that had a higher interest rate.
That existing debt and federal loan is one reason the railroad wants grants — not more loans — to move the steam engine and for the turntable. Wooten was told by the railroad that it lacked the collateral to take on additional debt right now.
The train has also asked for money for advertising from the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority — tapping into the pot of money raised from a tax on overnight lodging in the county. The train initially asked for $150,000 a year, but has since revised the request to an unspecified amount of advertising on the train’s behalf, specifically for marketing the steam engine service from Dillsboro.
Opponents to a proposed room tax increase in Jackson County are accusing county leaders of secretly earmarking the money for a grant to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
“If this is about raising funds to get the railroad to move back to Dillsboro, then we are against it,” said Hanneke Ware, owner of the Chalet Inn, at a public hearing on the room tax increase this week. “It is not right to increase the accommodation taxes in a county as widespread as Jackson to provide marketing money to a private business.”
The scenic tourist railroad has asked the county for as much as half a million dollars in exchange for offering steam engine train service to the tourist village of Dillsboro.
The train, once headquartered in Dillsboro, cited the flagging economy when it pulled out in 2008. Dillsboro’s galleries, gift shops and restaurants were thrust into a tailspin over the sudden loss of 60,000 tourists annually.
While the train has since brought limited passenger train service back to Dillsboro, business owners worry the train won’t stick around and still pine for the same level of foot traffic they once enjoyed.
County Commissioner Mark Jones, who spoke to commissioners during the public hearing in his capacity as head of the Cashiers Area Travel and Tourism Authority, said if a tax increase is needed to help the train, perhaps Dillsboro should levy it. In Macon County, Jones pointed out, the county levies a 3 percent tax and the town of Franklin levies an additional 3 percent tax there.
County leaders say there is no connection between the proposed room tax increase and the financial assistance being sought by the railroad.
“We don’t have a motive,” said Commission Chairman Jack Debnam.
Anyone who thinks the room tax increase is aimed at raising money to give the railroad is misinformed, Debnam said. The county has bandied the idea around but is not close to a deal, Debnam said. (see related article)
Several speakers opposing the room tax hike believe there is a connection, however.
“Why are they asking the county for money?” Ware asked.
She said the railroad should do what other businesses do when expanding: namely, get a bank loan.
“Is it because they don’t have collateral?” Ware asked. “If they can’t get a loan, why would the county want to put money into a business whose financial plans are tenuous?”
Henry Hoche likewise questioned why the tourist railroad needs money from the county.
“To me it makes no sense why the railroad isn’t paying for it itself,” said Hoche, owner of Innisfree Inn By-the-Lake in Glenville.
Giving tax money to private business in exchange for creating jobs isn’t exactly a new concept. Incentives to land new industry are common at the state level, and counties often get in the game by offering tax credits to lure new companies offering jobs.
Jackson County has a revolving loan fund designed to help businesses moving to or expanding in Jackson County. Al Harper, the owner of the railroad, previously estimated 15 to 20 news jobs would be created under his plan to base a steam engine train in Dillsboro — a plan predicated on financial help, however.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad steam engine project would not create enough jobs to qualify for the size of the revolving loan request, however.
It wouldn’t matter anyway, Wooten said, because the railroad has since told him it can’t take on any more debt.
Spin-off jobs created by other businesses, such as the tourist-oriented shops in Dillsboro, wouldn’t count toward the job creation quota the railroad must meet, Wooten said.
The scenic railroad wants to base trips on a restored 1913 steam engine and rail cars in Dillsboro, but there’s a hitch. The train is in Maine, and it would cost more than $400,000 to move it down to Dillsboro, the railroad estimates. It wants the county to split the cost, plus pony up money to help advertise the new steam engine service.
Currently, tourism tax dollars can only go to marketing and advertising, not to hard costs like steam trains. The narrow criteria were imposed by the state in the 1980s when counties first began charging lodging taxes.
A few years ago, the law changed. Room tax can now fund “tourism-related expenditures,” which can include walking trails, festival bleachers, boat docks, or perhaps a stream train — anything that would presumably lure tourists. The state allows up to one-third of a county’s room tax dollars to go toward such “tourism-related expenditures.”
If Jackson County wants this flexibility, however, it has to adopt new language at the local level reflecting that. It has become part of the discussion over whether to increase the room tax, along with revamping the tourism oversight agency that controls the money.
Clifford Meads, general manager of High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, doesn’t like the idea of tourism tax money going to projects instead of strictly promotions.
“There will be people dreaming up projects so they can spend the money,” Meads said.
Meads said shipping money from other parts of the county to help Dillsboro is “going to be divisive.”