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Jackson tourism board offers tepid yet symbolic support of scenic railroad venture

The Jackson County Tourism Development Authority is the latest voice to enter the fray as the county ponders a $700,000 grant to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in exchange for the promise of more tourists.

 

Tourism board members last week passed a resolution supporting the return of the scenic tourist railroad to Dillsboro — particularly as a departure point rather than a brief lay-over destination for trips originating in Bryson City. 

Ultimately, the resolution is brief and vague — and falls short of actually weighing in on whether the county should help the railroad monetarily. Instead, the resolution merely states support for rail trips out of Dillsboro. 

But three of the eleven board members were against the board venturing into the political, and somewhat controversial, arena of the discussions unfolding over the county’s proposed deal with the railroad. They thought it best to avoid the discussion altogether, whatever their individual thoughts on the importance of the train might be, especially since the tourism 

But Tourism Board Member Mickey Luker, owner of Caney Fork General Store in Cullowhee, said because it is the role of the authority to support tourism in the county, throwing its weight behind the issue was a no-brainer — even if the vote was largely symbolic.

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“I don’t think we can make an argument that this is not part of travel and tourism,” Luker said. “I have, personally, seen firsthand what (the train) does, and I feel very strongly about it.”

The county commissioners are embroiled in a debate over whether to provide a $700,000 grant to the railroad to help it refurbish an old steam engine, build a track turn table and improve its maintenance yard. In return, the railroad would commit to originate train trips from the Dillsboro station — a practice it largely abandoned a few years ago to the detriment of the town’s economy.

Swain County has already agreed to collaborate with the railroad in a similar agreement.

While most Jackson County residents seem to be in favor of seeing the train return to Dillsboro, a formidable contingent is skeptical about the details of the proposed agreement between the county government and the private company. Critics question whether the return would be worth the investment of county tax dollars. Supporters say it would be positive economic development.

But its passage still drew sharp opposition from some tourism board members with dissenting votes. Included in that group was board chairman Clifford Meads, general manager of Cashiers’ High Hampton Inn.

Being that both the tourism authority — newly formed this year — and the train deal are in their infancies, Mead argued that it might be better to sit back and watch the issue unravel before taking sides. 

“If the decision goes south, we will be on record as supporting something that is a waste of money,” Mead said.

As a caveat, the resolution contains the disclaimer that the tourism authority has no intention of coming up with any part of the $700,000.

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