The town of Dillsboro, once a thriving retail market for tourists, has taken a beating in the past two years. First, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, a business that delivered 60,000 visitors per year to the downtown, moved its operations to Bryson City and cut train routes to the quaint shopping hamlet. Meanwhile, the recession hit the mountains full force.
“What Dillsboro experienced is the perfect storm,” said Dr. Betty Farmer, communications professor at Western Carolina University. “That railroad left and the economy tanked, and the timing really could not have been worse for them.”
Farmer is one of a cadre of WCU professors working with the town and its business community to redefine its marketing strategy and enliven its retail district.
Mayor Mike Fitzgerald said the partnership could help the town develop a new identity, something that’s not tied to the success or failure of one business.
“I think that identity — with or without the train –– is what we’re working on right now,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re at a crossroads.”
Life without the railroad
For two decades the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad drew visitors to Dillsboro’s Front Street and created foot traffic for a downtown retail district that emphasized local crafts.
In 2008, the train line pulled out for economic reasons, leaving 22 full-time employees jobless and the town without a major tourist draw.
Walt Cook, owner of the Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery, opened his business just six weeks before the train left. When the train stopped coming, so did his walk-in customers.
“My particular type of business relies on a certain amount of walk-around traffic, and Dillsboro doesn’t have enough of that since the train left,” Cook said.
The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad resumed limited service to Dillsboro from Bryson City last year, and this year they’ve expanded service further. But businesses downtown can no longer rely on sheer volume of tourists to turn a profit.
Cook has decided to move his retail business to Waynesville because he doesn’t think Dillsboro has enough to draw tourists.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon last week, Douglas Siegrist, 33, of York, Penn., sat out front of Bradley’s General Store with his son, Tanner, eating ice cream cones. They had come on the one o’clock train from Bryson City, where their relatives run a campground.
Siegrist said he didn’t think they would have visited Dillsboro without the attraction of the train.
“Probably not,” he said. “We really haven’t heard much about Dillsboro.”
But having discovered the town, Siegrist said he would like to come back.
“It’s a nice little town, and it seems like there’s a lot going on,” Siegrist said.
Frank and Diane Lauterman of Clermont, Fla., arrived on the same train. The Lautermans were also staying in Bryson City, and Frank said that while the railroad lured them to Dillsboro, the town had its own selling points.
“I would move here,” Frank said. “This is the area I’d like to retire.”
Those reactions point at something most Dillsboro business owners can agree on. The town’s attraction is about more than the train.
“This town was a thriving tourist town even before the train was here,” said John Miele, owner of the Golden Carp, a home furnishings store that draws visitors from all over the region.
Miele said train customers were never a mainstay for his business, but he appreciated the energy they brought to the retail district. He thinks the struggles retailers are facing now have more to do with the state of the economy than anything else.
“The train leaving has nothing to do with what’s going on right now,” Miele said. “That we have any business at all is a miracle.”
Jean Hartbarger, owner of The Jarrett House and former mayor of Dillsboro, summed up the situation succinctly.
“The train didn’t kill Dillsboro,” Hartbarger said. “The economy did.”
Last year, at the instigation of Western Carolina University Chancellor John Bardo, WCU began a multi-departmental partnership with Dillsboro and its downtown merchant community.
Bardo, whose academic background is in urban planning and community development, said the partnership fits the university’s mission of community engagement, but it’s also an effort to lend a hand to a neighbor.
“It became clear that, with the train not coming on a regular basis, people in Dillsboro were suffering,” Bardo said.
Bardo said the goal for the university is to offer its resources to small business owners who want help.
“A university can never tell the people of a community or region what to do,” Bardo said. “We’re trying to give the people of Dillsboro some help, so they can re-shape their course the way they want to.”
Dr. Betty Farmer, a WCU professor in communication and public relations, has taken the lead in coordinating the partnership. She said the first six months have been to a large extent about building trust and identifying issues.
Now that a working relationship has been established between the university and business community, the challenges have gotten more concrete.
“I feel like we have a firm grasp on what the problems are now,” Farmer said. “But the business people needed help yesterday, and it’s almost impossible for us to move as fast as they need us to.”
Farmer said one business owner confided to her that gross receipts had fallen from $130,000 per year to $30,000 during a three-year period.
In January, Farmer facilitated a large group meeting to discuss the action plan for the revitalization campaign. The result was an eight-step strategy that involves creating a coherent brand identity for the town, increasing the number of WCU faculty and staff who use the downtown district, and updating the town’s presence on the Internet.
So far, half of the downtown businesses have worked with WCU’s Small Business and Technology Development Center to develop better business planning, marketing and finance strategies. Also, economics professor Steve Ha has conducted surveys of the business community, WCU’s faculty and staff, and visitors to help figure out what the town needs to do to reach potential customers.
The faculty and staff survey, which was offered on-line, yielded more than 600 responses.
Miele has participated in the partnership, and he’s pleased with its results so far.
“It’s like anything. Sometimes you can’t see your mistakes until someone comes in from the outside and points them out to you,” he said.
As a result of his work with WCU faculty and students, Miele has developed a Facebook page that’s linked to his business home page, and he’s already found that it’s helped walk-in traffic.
“Just when I was going to 86 the whole thing, I started hearing from customers saying, ‘We saw your website,” Miele said. “Now it’s my catalogue.”
Farmer is confident that the business owners can learn from the partnership.
“I think there are some things Dillsboro businesses can do and they’re open to it,” Farmer said.
But she’s realistic about what the university can do for the town.
“We don’t have $500,000 to run a slick ad campaign,” Farmer said. “So we have to use other ways to increase the number of visitors.”
Playing to strengths
While the challenges facing all small tourist towns are great, Dillsboro has some natural advantages. Its location at the junction of U.S. 23/74 and U.S. 441 makes it extremely accessible. The town has public access points on Scott’s Creek and one on the Tuckasegee River.
Tyler Davis recently opened Blue Ridge Outing Company, a rafting business, in part of the old train depot. Davis has owned an outfitter business in Bill’s Flea Market on the Smoky Mountain Expressway for the past five years, but he jumped at the chance to open a location in Dillsboro.
“Nothing against the flea market. I love the flea market,” Davis said. “But for a business like this, it’s a much more appropriate location.”
Davis like the fact that his customers have access to public restrooms and a shopping district, and they only have to walk 150 yards to the boat launch to start their trips.
What’s still missing, he said, is a major draw.
“It has the buildings. It has the shops. It’s the amount of attractions. That’s what the town still needs,” Davis said. “The place has such a cool image as a mountain town.”
Carrie Blaskowski, a Dillsboro resident and assistant director of the Jackson County Green Energy Park, believes the partnership with WCU has helped the business community get a grip on what it needs to do.
“We can become complacent and rely on what we know or we can start over and collaborate on building the future together,” Blaskowski said.
The Green Energy Park has become a destination for travelers interested in sustainable business practices, in large part because it uses landfill methane to power a crafts studio for glass blowers and blacksmiths.
Blaskowski sees crafts as a lasting part of the town’s identity, but she thinks the future of the town relies on diversity.
“Dillsboro may be going back to its roots with some of the efforts in the crafts community but we’re also trying a lot of other things,” Blaskowski said.
For Farmer, Dillsboro has one asset money can’t buy. Location, location, location.
“It’s in the middle of so many great things,” Farmer said.
Mayor Mike Fitzgerald is quick to point out that while Dillsboro’s retail businesses are struggling, the town is thriving as a residential community. He believes the town just needs to develop ways to build on its assets.
“It’s a historic crafts community, and it’s a quaint mountain town,” said Fitzgerald. “Unfortunately with the economy down, the crafting side of things isn’t bringing in the same revenue it used to.”
Over the hill in Cullowhee, Bardo has committed his university to the partnership for the long haul.
“It has to be a long-term relationship,” Bardo said. “What we’re seeing in the mountains is the local effect of what is a global economic downturn. It can’t be turned around quickly.”