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Wednesday, 19 April 2017 13:44

Bryson City reconsiders railroad request

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It only took about two weeks for the Bryson City Board of Aldermen to change its mind regarding a request from Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to close Fry Street during the Polar Express rides this winter.

Even with an overwhelming show of support from the Swain County Chamber of Commerce staff and its business members, the board voted to deny the railroad’s request on April 3. 

The railroad says the closure is necessary to keep its passengers safe when boarding and exiting the train, but the town has been hesitant to grant the requests because of complaints from business owners on Fry Street who say their business suffers when the street is closed. 

While there are five businesses on Fry Street, the Chamber of Commerce ran a full-page advertisement in the Smoky Mountain Times last week with the names of more than 50 businesses and individuals who support the railroad and its request to close Fry Street. 

With rumors spreading that the railroad might move its Polar Express event to Dillsboro for safer pedestrian options, many in the Bryson City business community feared the tourism dollars they depend on would go with them. With more than 80,000 passengers a year, the railroad has a huge economic impact in the county. 

Town hall was packed again Monday night with downtown business owners as the board took a unanimous vote to allow the Fry Street closure from November through January. 

Alderman Janine Crisp said the town was still in negotiations with the railroad but made the motion “in good faith” to approve closing Fry Street for Polar Express as long as the railroad met three stipulations — the railroad must keep the parking lot beside BoxCar Restaurant open to the public; not erect any event tents that would obscure visitors’ view of Fry Street merchants; and those merchants must be given a 30-day notice of the street closure.

The board unanimously approved the motion without any discussion or specifics on what the town and railroad might be negotiating. However, the town board’s very next vote was to approve the purchase of the former Powell Lumber Company building at 601 Bryson Walk. 

The town has been trying to purchase the property to have more space for equipment storage and vehicle maintenance, but the deal fell through in January because the town wasn’t able to secure an easement from the railroad because the GSMR tracks run right in front of the building and town vehicles would be crossing over them throughout the day. 

Town Attorney Fred Moody told the board back in January that it should look for another piece of property because of the railroad’s strict policy on right of way over the tracks. He said the restrictions were based on liability issues and the process to get the easement would be cost prohibitive for the town. 

“Without a permanent easement, we wouldn’t have legal access to that property,” said Town Manager Chad Simons.  

With the town now purchasing the property that seemed so out of reach, it appears the railroad and the town are working out some compromise to get both parties what they want. 

The property includes about 10 acres right along the Tuckasegee River and the building is about 8,000 square feet. Simons said the town is paying for the purchase with a $200,000 loan from United Community Bank. The loan is for seven years with a fixed 2.99 percent interest rate.

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