Great Smoky Mountains Railway this week promised to return to Dillsboro in a big way, on this condition: Jackson County must come up with $817,176.
“We need to explore how we can work together and get that train here, and market it together,” railroad owner Alan Harper told county commissioners.
Taxpayers’ dollars would:
• Pay for moving a train set from Maine ($322,000 in the form of a grant).
• Restore and paint the locomotive and exterior coaches ($95,176, also a grant).
• Install a turntable in Dillsboro’s Monteith Park ($250,000 in the form of a loan).
• $150,000 in annual tourism advertising funds (in the form of a matching grant).
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 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, Great Smoky Mountains Railway did begin limited, seasonal excursions out of Dillsboro again.
Now this news — 110 to 120 days of train service each year, 15 to 20 new jobs created in Jackson County, low estimates of at least 20,000 visitors to the tourism-dependent town, and the possibility of turning Monteith Park into a train destination in its own right, too. Harper said he has a steam engine that doesn’t work, and he’d be willing to possibly park it at Monteith. And, another sweetener — an unused metal bridge the town could use to span the creek in Monteith Park. All that for just more than $800,000, Harper said.
County commissioners clearly were not surprised by the request or presentation (the details were included in a pre-assembled packet for commissioners and reporters. Plus, Harper said he’d been discussing the deal with Dillsboro town leaders “individually,” and the possibility of a turntable had been bubbling about the town of just more than 200 residents for the past few weeks).
A turntable would do just what it says — serve as a means of turning the train around. Town leaders, Harper said, have indicated they believe Monteith Park would work for that purpose.
The train excursions would, he said, be first class using a steam engine. Commissioner Charles Elders asked when they would start if this deal is struck, and Harper said possibly by mid-summer. Commissioners took no action, with Chairman Jack Debnam telling Harper the county looks forward to working with the railroad.