County leaders voted last fall in support of putting up $600,000 to restore the steam engine. The money would come out of a special tax paid by tourists on overnight lodging.
But the deal has been held up on some technicalities.
“It is tied up with the lawyers right now,” said County Manager Kevin King. “We are just waiting on this, so hopefully in the next 30 to 45 days.”
Although Swain County and the railroad have a preliminary agreement hashing out the terms each side must live up to, neither party will sign on the dotted line until all the ducks are lined up.
“It is very close,” said Kim Lay, Swain County’s attorney. “There is a lot of detail that has to be gone through.”
The major hang-up is that the county doesn’t yet know the total estimated cost of repairing the steam engine and building a turntable. The county wants to know that if they put up $600,000 that it would be enough to get the job done, or at least come close.
Otherwise, the county would be out the money and still not have a working steam engine at the end of the day.
The railroad previously contended it had no way of knowing what it would cost until the repair job got underway, but Lay wants to drill down on some hard numbers upfront.
Part of the project would also include building an engine turntable — if, that is, there was any money left over. Surveyors recently bored into the ground where the turntable will sit to figure out how strong the ground is and how much reinforcement it would need to hold the rotating piece of track.
“Until the total cost is assessed — that is kind of holding up the final agreement,” Lay said. “We are making progress, but it’s slow. There is a lot of deed work; there is a lot of survey work.”
In return for the $600,000 contribution, the railroad will put up the steam engine and turntable as collateral. In fact, the county is requiring the railroad to sign over the deed on the steam engine to the county, so the county will own the steam engine outright from the beginning.
The railroad must also create six new jobs, have the steam engine operating within 36 months and base at least 50 percent of its trips out of Bryson City for 15 years.
Jackson County commissioners have been asked to provide financial assistance to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad as well to help with turntables and maintenance yard improvements but have yet to sign anything. No matter, Swain will push full steam head.
“Regardless of what Jackson County decides to do, we are moving forward with Swain County,” Lay said.
One opponent asked why Harper did not invest the money in the steam engine himself if it is expected to draw thousands more riders.
“Nobody has looked into why he didn’t fix it himself,” said J.B. Jacobs, a Swain resident. “They could get the county into a mess here.”
By not fixing the engine, Jacobs argued, Harper was missing out on potential revenue.
Despite some citizen concerns, county leaders said they feel confident in the agreement, which will benefit the town and its businesses. The steam engine is estimated to bring as many as 36,000 additional visitors a year.
“It boils down to that one issue — jobs,” said Commissioner David Monteith. “You walk up and down the street. Those businesses, they weren’t there before the train was there.”
Swain County will borrow the $600,000 and pay it back during a 15-year period out of tourism tax dollars collected from overnight visitors.