Eleven months ago, the Jackson County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve development of a river park on county-owned land along the Tuckasegee River in Dillsboro.
Nearly a century old, the aging Cullowhee Dam is at a crossroads — with risk of failure increasing, Western Carolina University must decide whether to renovate the existing structure or remove it completely.
The dam hasn’t been used for power generation since the 1960s, but it creates a reservoir of still water that supplies WCU and the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. However, some would like to see the dam disappear, offering increased opportunity for paddlers and allowing fish and other aquatic life to travel freely through a more natural, higher-quality river.
A new river park in Dillsboro is no longer just a proposal after the Jackson County Commissioners voted unanimously April 3 to approve an economic development deal between the county and Western North Carolina Outdoor Development, a company owned by Jackson County businessman Kelly Custer.
A proposed river park development in Dillsboro drew a crowd of roughly 75 people to a public hearing March 20, with 20 people delivering comment on the issue and prompting the Jackson County Commissioners to postpone a final decision until they could fully research all the questions that were asked.
Jackson County is hoping that grants will offset the $847,000 cost of extending water and sewer connections to a piece of land being eyed for a new outdoor adventure park in Dillsboro, and last week commissioners gave the county the go-ahead to apply for just such a grant — $50,000 from the N.C. Department of Commerce.
Kelly Custer has been a lifelong lover of the outdoors, from playing sports as a kid to mountaineering adventures in far-flung regions of Bolivia and Peru as an adult. Now, the Jackson County businessman is hoping to get others exploring Western North Carolina’s outdoor opportunities — specifically, those afforded by the stretch of the Tuckasegee River flowing through Dillsboro.
Last year, Custer formed the company Western North Carolina Outdoor Development with an eye to bid on a piece of property that’s been publicly owned since 2013, when Duke Energy turned it over to Dillsboro following removal of the Dillsboro Dam. Dillsboro sold it to Jackson County for $350,000 in 2014, and ever since the county’s been looking for a way to turn the undeveloped tract into a win for economic development.
Construction on an outdoor adventure park offering everything from rafting to ropes courses could begin in Dillsboro as early as April if the Jackson County Commissioners give final approval to the project following a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 20, at the Jackson County Justice and Administration Building.
Western North Carolina is rife with trails and maps to facilitate exploration of the mountain landscape, but an effort is underway to add a new kind of trail to the mix — a blue trail.
“A hiking trail is a great way to help people explore and discover and connect to the land. A blue trail is a way to allow people to discover and explore and connect to rivers,” explained Mandi Carringer, river conservation associate for American Rivers.
The greenway in Jackson County has now been fully open for a month, and use is skyrocketing on the one-mile path along the Tuckasegee River in Cullowhee. From May to July, monthly use more than doubled to 5,485 visitors — that figure is more than five times the 1,034 people who used the greenway in November 2015, the first month data was taken.
If discussions between Nantahala Outdoor Center and Jackson County continue to move forward, the outdoor recreation giant could start work this year on an adventure park and outfitter store in the tiny town of Dillsboro.