Faced with a collapsing tourism marketplace caused by a national recession and the pullout of its featured attraction — the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad –– Dillsboro’s voters elected a new leadership team to steer the town towards an uncertain future.
David Gates, one of the winning candidates, wants the tourist railroad to resume operations in Dillsboro.
“I would like to work real hard to re-establish our relationship with the railroad and try to get them back into Dillsboro. It was our number one draw, and it was a win-win situation,” Gates said.
All five positions on the town board and its mayor’s seat were up for grabs during Tuesday’s election with eight challengers and only one incumbent vying for the spots.
While attracting tourism and increasing its revenue base are the most pressing local issues, Dillsboro has also been at the center of one of Western Carolina’s most contentious environmental fights.
Jackson County is battling Duke Energy in federal court to prevent the Fortune 500 company from tearing down the historic Dillsboro Dam. Depending on who wins the court case, the dam could be taken down by Duke or turned over to the county to be included in a riverfront park development.
Going into the election, most of the candidates said attracting tourism and re-building the town’s economic base were their focus, and, while the dam fight was close to their hearts, its outcome was out of their hands as a result of a stakeholder settlement agreement signed years ago.
The mayoral race pitted local business owners Teresa Dowd and Michael Fitzgerald against one another. Fitzgerald –– who has served as the vice mayor for the past four years –– won election with nearly 75 percent of the vote.
Fitzgerald said a key component in planning for the town’s future will be expanding and formalizing its relationship with Western Carolina University, which is helping the town create a long-term vision and brainstorm on how to boost a local economy slammed by the recession and the train’s departure.
“We don’t have a formal arrangement but we will have someone working with their departmental liaison to look at all the possibilities,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said it was important to harness the university’s resources and ideas before determining the best way forward for the town.
“If a business person were going to open in our town it would be good to see what kind of businesses are likely to succeed beforehand,” Fitzgerald said.
Jimmy Cabe, the only incumbent to run for re-election to the town board, was the leading vote-getter in the race.
Cabe also emphasized the importance of pursuing a partnership with WCU that would benefit the town’s merchants and its residents.
“I’m kind of looking at the partnership with Western benefiting the whole town, not just the merchants,” Cabe said, adding that he hoped the college would help the town develop its use of alternative energy production.
Mayor, 4-year term
Michael Fitzgerald 53
Teresa Dowd 16
Seats up for election: 5
Total seats on board: 5
Jimmy Cabe (I) 57
Tim Parris 56
David Gates 51
K David Jones 50
Joseph Riddle 32
Walter Cook 25
Emma Wertenberger 22
TJ Walker 18
Charles Wise 18
Registered voters: 175
Voter turnout: 26%