Swain County leaders have pledged $700,000 to help the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad expand its already bustling operations in Bryson City.
The principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will met with the owner of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad this week to discuss the possibility of expanding the scenic tourist railway to Cherokee.
Chief Michell Hicks publicly broached the idea at a joint meeting of Cherokee tribal council and the Jackson County commissioners on last week. Hicks said little more beyond expressing an interest in bringing the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad to Cherokee.
Swain County has now been targeted as part of a regional effort to drum up financial support for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s steam engine dreams.
Dillsboro officials are leading the charge, already courting Jackson County to make loans or grants for the railroad, and is now asking Swain County to participate as well.
Two members of the Dillsboro town board, David Gates and Tim Parris, addressed the Swain County commissioners last week to discuss the possibility of joining forces to either loan money or pony up cash to help the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad expand its operations.
Specifically, the tourist railroad wants to transport a 1913 Swedish steam engine from Maine to Western North Carolina and build two engine turntables necessary for its operation.
“It would probably be one of only ones in America,” Gates said. The railway has applied to Jackson County for a loan, a grant or both to help make the project a reality.
Steam engines are a rarity, and their antiquity is enough to draw new visitors to the railway.
“This could change Western North Carolina,” Gates said. “It could be probably the second largest tourist attraction outside Biltmore.”
In order for the project to work, the railroad would need a turntable in Dillsboro and one in Bryson City, where the steam engine could be turned around. Currently, the tourist train based out of Bryson City simply goes in reverse when reaching the end of its trip in order to return to the depot. But steam engines cannot move in reverse like the diesel engine that currently runs on the railroad.
Each year, 180,000 people ride the privately owned Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and the new steam engine will increase business by 15 or 20 percent, said Al Harper, owner of the railroad.
“Any steam engine will draw attention,” he said. “There just aren’t a lot of steam engines around anymore.”
And, the turntables themselves would be a big draw for visitors, especially if they include a viewing walkway where spectators can watch the engine being rotated.
The turntables as well as the creation of a walkway surrounding the mechanisms would cost about $600,000 total, plus about $450,000 to move the steam engine and railcars from Maine. It is unclear exactly how much the railroad would put up itself versus how much it is asking for.
While Swain and Jackson counties may be amenable to helping the railroad, as talks continue they may bump heads over a fairly significant detail. Both counties would like the steam engine based in their hometown as a condition of putting up money.
“I am very much in favor of the steam engine, and I’m in favor of the turntables,” said Robert White, a Swain County commissioner. “It’s unique.”
However, White would prefer that rides on the new engine originate from Bryson City.
“As far as I’m concerned, the steam engine should come out of Bryson City,” White said. “That is going to be a decision made by Mr. Harper.”
White added that the county is willing to do anything it can to help the railroad as long as it benefits Swain County.
Meanwhile, Jackson County has been clear that is wants the steam engine based out of Dillsboro for at least five years.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said the county would insist on that in writing as a condition in of any loan or grant the county made.
“We wanted to make sure number one that the train was going to operate mainly out of Dillsboro,” he said.
Harper said that Bryson City would remain the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s center of business but that Dillsboro would become the center of operations for the steam engine. This would give both towns a slice of the railway’s revenues.
Swain County commissioners suggested that a meeting between the railroad and leaders in Jackson and Swain counties to iron out the details.
“Everybody wants to see the jobs come in. Everybody wants to see the trains come in,” said David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner.
A talk will not take place for at least another few weeks because several key officials will be on vacation.
“We need a good joint cooperation,” Monteith said.
Talks between Dillsboro and the railroad were put on hold before Christmas because of a problem in Colorado, home to one of Harper’s other railroads.
Gates has spearheaded the negotiations between the Town of Dillsboro and the railroad.
Harper and Dillsboro officials have tossed around various numbers for nearly a year, but it is unknown how much, if anything, Jackson County will chip in to help the railroad.
“That is kind of a wide open thing,” Gates said, declining to list a number until one is presented to the town or county in writing.
Harper said he is reviewing his original plans and looking for ways “to get the cost down.” One option would be to sell the eight passengers cars that he purchased along with the steam train and only transport the engine to Western North Carolina, he said.
“I really don’t need more rail cars,” Harper said.
Moving the steam engine train from Maine will cost about $450,000 on top of the $600,000 for turntables, but no one was willing to say how much the total project will cost.
“We don’t have a final idea of what funds are available,” Harper said.
However, Harper did say at one point he could pick up half the tab of moving the train if Jackson County paid the other half.
Meanwhile, Gates is hoping that Dillsboro to help the railroad land a grant for up to $200,000 in Golden Leaf Foundation to help pay for the turntables.
However, more details must be settled before the town can submit a funding application.
“We can’t apply for a Golden Leaf grant because we’re not ready to,” Gates said.
The town needs the support of Swain and Jackson counties as well as Bryson City if it wants to move forward with the project.
The train used to run from Dillsboro to Bryson City and beyond, but in 2005, the railroad moved its base of operations to Bryson City.
“(In the past) There hasn’t been the cooperation with Dillsboro,” Harper said. “There were some feelings for a while that Dillsboro did not care about the railroad.”
The railroad is a boon for whichever town it originates from. People riding the train shop in the town’s stores and eat at its restaurants both before and after their ride. While those stops along the tracks such as Dillsboro also benefit, the economic ramifications are considerably less because visitors only have a 90-minute layover in the town.
“We need something to get ‘em to stop here,” said Tim Parris, an alderman from Dillsboro.
When the railroad shifted its headquarters to Bryson City, Dillsboro suffered as tourism declined. The steam engine would bring those visitors back to Dillsboro.
The town indirectly lost about 44 jobs as a result of the move, Gates said.
The railroad has said it will hire 15 people to run its operations out of Dillsboro, but the return could create more jobs at local shops and restaurants, Gates said.
In 1985, Chris Van Allsburg wrote The Polar Express, a story of a magical train ride on Christmas Eve. The train takes a young boy to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa Claus. “The Polar Express,” published by Houghton Mifflin Company, has become a contemporary holiday classic, with over 6 million copies sold worldwide. In 2004 Warner Bros. Entertainment reunited the Academy Award-winning team of Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis in an inspiring animated version.
That same year Great Smoky Mountain Railroad began operating The Polar Express. More than 30,000 passengers rode The Polar Express with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in 2010.
The one-hour round-trip excursion comes to life as the train departs the Bryson City depot for a journey through the quiet wilderness for a special visit at the North Pole. Set to the sounds of the motion picture soundtrack, guests on board will enjoy warm cocoa and a treat while listening and reading along with the magical story. Santa will board the train, greeting each child and presenting them with a special gift just like in the story — their own silver sleigh bell. Christmas carols will be sung as the train returns to the depot.
The Polar Express operates through Dec. 24. Ticket prices begin at $39 for adults and $26 for children ages 2-12. Children under 2 years old ride complimentary. For more information and reservations please call 800.872.4681 or visit us online at www.GSMR.com. Premium rates apply to Nov. 25-27, Dec. 17-23 and all Saturday trains.
Crown Class ticket prices are $49 for Adults, $36 for children 2-12 and $10 for less than two years. First Class seating upgrades are available. Each guest will receive a deluxe serving of warm cocoa in a souvenir Polar Express mug and other treats in addition to the standard offerings. Upgrade to First Class at $59 for adults and $41 for children. Children under two years old are $15.
There will also be a Polar Express Christmas Eve Limited. Each guest will receive a special Christmas souvenir. Adult ticket prices are $51 and children 2-12 are $37. First-class seating upgrades are also available. Adult ticket prices are $72, children 2-12 are $50 and $20 for less than two years.
Smoky Mountain Trains Museum admission is included with all train excursion tickets. Without train excursion admission is $9 for adults and $5 for children.
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.”
No actual decision was made, but County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners this week that they have $95,176 set aside in the budget if they want to give the money, as requested, to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
The money would go toward fixing up a steam engine the railroad bought that is currently sitting in Maine. In February, the privately owned business asked for $817,176 in the form of a loan and a grant from Jackson County. A few weeks later, the railroad amended that request to ask for $95,176 in cash and $322,000 in the form of a loan.
Now the loan part is gone, and the railroad just wants cold, hard cash from Jackson County.
That’s because if the railroad did get a loan from the county, it might well be forced to immediately pay back another federal loan because of an agreed upon debt-equity ratio, Wooten said.
Businessman Al Harper owns the railroad. Until 2008, Dillsboro served as the headquarters of the railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train moved its administrative office and main depot to Bryson City. Dillsboro languished in the wake of that decision. Last year, and even more this year, the railroad did begin limited, seasonal excursions out of Dillsboro again.
With the steam engine, Harper is promising to run service out of Dillsboro two to three days per week in June, July and August, and three to four days out of the week in October.
Additionally, the railroad promises during November and December for the popular Polar Express to originate out of the tourism-dependent town.
“If there is sufficient passenger demand then (the) number of days could be increased,” Wooten noted. “There will also be trips on the steam engine originating out of Bryson City with a stopover in Dillsboro.”
Swain County and the Swain County Travel and Tourism Authority each have already kicked in $25,000, for a total of $50,000, to the railroad.
A decision by commissioners in Jackson County won’t be made until the steam engine is physically located in Western North Carolina from Maine, Wooten said.
Depending on which town leader you ask, Dillsboro is prepared to co-sign on a more than $300,000 loan for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — or, short of that, the town is inclined to help the railroad in some significant, still-to-be-determined manner.
That loan amount is nearly double the town’s annual budget of $171,610.
“We’d sign if need be,” Dillsboro Alderman David Gates said flatly. “If they have adequate collateral, we said we would.”
Gates’ fellow board member, David Jones, was a bit more circumspect about the potentially controversial agreement: “We’re interested, and we certainly want the railroad here — we’ve agreed to listen to more details.”
The railroad is privately owned by businessman Al Harper, who has asked Jackson County commissioners for $95,176 in cash and $322,000 in the form of a loan to keep the tourist trains coming to Dillsboro on a regular basis. This is less than Harper originally sought. In early March, he asked for more than $800,000 from Jackson County in the form of grants and a loan, but later downsized the dollar request.
Swain County has contributed $25,000 to help the railway, and the Swain County Tourism Development Authority has kicked in another $25,000, said Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker.
“It’s an economic engine for Bryson City,” Walker said in explanation of the willingness in Swain County to fund a private, for-profit enterprise. “I call it our Harrah’s.”
That would be a reference to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the money machine for the neighboring Cherokee Indian Reservation.
The railway recently bought an old steam engine — which is currently in Maine — and wants to put it in service along with its diesel-powered engines. Harper said the money from the county would help make that vision a reality.
In return for the loan from the county, the train in exchange says it will run 110 to 120 days of service each year out of Dillsboro.
Harper told commissioners the excursions would create 15 to 20 new jobs in Jackson County, and bring in least 20,000 visitors annually to the tourism-dependent town.
Dillsboro served as the headquarters of Great Smoky Mountains Railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train pulled out in 2008.
Last year the Great Smoky Mountains Railway began limited, seasonal trips out of Dillsboro again. The company said in January that Dillsboro was put back on the schedule because the scenic little town of about 220 residents is a drawing card for the business. Currently, the train is advertising excursions from Bryson City to Dillsboro five days a week during the summer and four days a week during fall, according to its online schedule.
Dillsboro leaders would like to cement more spots in the train’s schedule.
According to draft minutes of the April 11 Dillsboro town board meeting, Mayor Mike Fitzgerald told his fellow board members, “Jackson County commissioners would like the Dillsboro Board of Alderman to co-sign the loan, provided that the GSMR gives adequate collateral to cover such a loan. David Gates made motion that the board agrees to support the Jackson County commissioners, providing sufficient collateral is given by GSMR. The motion was seconded by Tim Parris, and passed with four ayes, one abstention.”
Interim County Manager Chuck Wooten said county commissioners have not taken any formal action to ask Dillsboro to co-sign at this point.
“However, informal discussions among the commissioners generated this concept as an idea,” he said. “I believe Chairman (Jack) Debnam asked Mayor Fitzgerald to poll his members to determine if this might be something they would consider. Based on their action, it appears they would endorse this action once they feel comfortable with the pledged collateral to secure the loan.”
The county hasn’t yet received a formal loan application from the railway, Wooten said, adding, however, “I suspect the commissioners will feel more at ease approving a loan if Dillsboro is willing to co-sign.”
Wooten has previously explained that the $95,176 grant would be used to restore and paint the steam locomotive and exterior of first-class coaches. Wooten said he intends to consider this grant in the upcoming fiscal-year county budget, which commissioners have final say over.
“We will discuss their grant request during upcoming budget discussions ... I’m still hopeful I will have a budget document to submit to the commissioners on Monday, May 2,” he said.
The $322,000 revolving loan would pay for moving the newly purchased train from Maine to North Carolina. The county’s economic development arm manages the revolving loan fund. It would be up to county commissioners whether to approve the loan request.
Harper’s company, American Heritage Family Parks, owns two other tourist railroads in Colorado and Texas. Harper is one of the principle investors and owners of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley, which has been in bankruptcy for two years. Harper has made an effort to buy the park out of bankruptcy, but has been unable to secure financing. Harper at one point had lined up a loan using the railroad as collateral, but the deal fell through. A new deal is pending, which involved transferring 49-percent ownership in the railroad to a newly created corporation for the purpose of piecing together a Ghost Town rescue.
Bringing regular train service back to Dillsboro greatly depends on whether Jackson County commissioners come up with dollars to help restore a steam engine and bring it here from Maine, Kim Albritton, vice president and general manager of Great Smoky Mountains Railway, said this week.
The railway has reduced the amount of money it’s seeking from Jackson County taxpayers from more than $800,000 down to $95,176 in cash and $322,000 in the form of a loan.
Albritton stopped short this week of flatly calling a thumb’s down from the county a deal breaker, instead characterizing such a commission vote as making “it more difficult” for the company to proceed.
The railway recently bought an old steam engine — which is currently in Maine — and wants to put it in service along with its diesel-powered engines.
If the county will help with that goal, the train in exchange will run 110 to 120 days of service each year out of Dillsboro. This, railway owner Al Harper has said, would create 15 to 20 new jobs in Jackson County, and bring in least 20,000 visitors annually to the tourism-dependent town.
Until 2008, Dillsboro served as the headquarters of Great Smoky Mountains Railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train pulled out. It moved its headquarters and main depot to Bryson City and quit running excursions to Dillsboro, which languished as result.
More business in the form of train-riding tourists returned last year when the Great Smoky Mountains Railway began limited, seasonal trips out of Dillsboro again.
Interim County Manager Chuck Wooten, who received the new funding request from Great Smoky Mountains Railway in late March, said the $95,176 grant would be used to restore and paint the steam locomotive and exterior of first-class coaches. Wooten said he intends to consider this grant in the upcoming fiscal-year county budget, which commissioners have final say over.
The $322,000 revolving loan would pay for moving the newly purchased train from Maine to North Carolina. The county’s economic development arm manages the revolving loan fund. It would be up to county commissioners whether to approve the loan request. Wooten said he doubted this would take place until sometime later this month.
Private land in Dillsboro might spare the historic Monteith House site from becoming home to a turntable for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, part of a plan to return regular train service to this tourism-dependent town.
Kim Albritton, the railway’s vice president and general manager, confirmed railroad representatives will talk with private landowners about the possibility of using their land for a turntable instead of Monteith Park as originally proposed. That has not taken place yet, she said.
Without a turntable, engines must travel in reverse, pushing the train’s cars instead of pulling them, when making the return trip back to Bryson City after an excursion to Dillsboro.
Previous discussions had involved putting the turntable in front of the barn near the Monteith House. The old farmstead house faces the proposed turntable site just a few hundred yards away. It would change — if not stop — plans to renovate and turn the house into an Appalachian Women’s Museum. The museum would honor and recognize the contributions of Appalachian women to this region.
Dillsboro Mayor Mike Fitzgerald emphasized that town leaders had considered using the town-owned, historic Monteith Park as “a last resort” only.
That falls in line with stipulations from the state, which in 2004 gave Dillsboro $250,000 to help fund the park. State rules mandate the town must “explain in detail which sites have been evaluated and where they are located and why Monteith Park is the only alternative” for a train turntable, according to an email dated Feb. 24 received by the town from LuAnn Bryan, a consultant for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.
If the requirement to use “all practical alternatives” is met and no other site is viable, the town does have the state’s OK to let the train use Monteith Community Park, according to the email.
The turntable would then be built on about three-quarters of an acre. In return, the town would offer up two acres, known as the Vanderwoude property, for recreational development, according to town documents. The town would be required to replace the lost parkland.
Dillsboro resident Emma Wertenberger, who is heading up efforts to turn Monteith House into a museum, said she and other committee members haven’t given up on the idea.
“We still hope to have a home at the Monteith homestead,” she said.