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Jackson urged to vet all options before dishing out railroad grant

A group of Jackson County residents have been making the rounds in recent weeks asking decision makers to think twice before forking over $750,000 to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in hopes of increasing tourism.


“Everybody is so fired up to give the train money,” said Barry Kennon, a kayaker in Jackson County. 

Kennon wants the county to consider other ideas to boost tourism. If the county has $750,000 to invest in tourism, why not consider all its options instead of the one that fell in the county’s lap.

One idea Kennon hopes will gain traction is a man-made whitewater park along the Tuckasegee River in Dillsboro with a series of whitewater obstacles.

“This is a guaranteed thing — if you build a whitewater park people are going to come and use it,” Kennon said.

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Kennon, a former World Freestyle Kayak Champion and member of the U.S. National Slalom team, shared the idea at a Dillsboro town meeting recently. The reception was amicable but skeptical, he said.

Part of the problem, Kennon said is that Dillsboro still has the mentality of being a train town and its residents may be hesitant to embrace its potential as a river rat town.

“The people in Dillsboro are so caught up on the train,” Kennon said. “They don’t realize how many people actually whitewater kayak or raft.”

Putting money into a scenic tourist train is catering to an aging demographic of tourist, according to Dillsboro Resident Eileen Kessler, another advocate of the river park idea. But a river park would appeal to the next generation of tourists and be a smarter move in the long run.

“That will generate more interest in Dillsboro and Sylva than going backward,” Kessler said.

Catering to outdoors enthusiasts would be the perfect niche for Dillsboro and tap the natural outdoor attractions it has at its doorstep, from bike trails to boating to hiking.

“We have plenty of empty storefronts to fill with shops selling merchandise related to sports like kayaking, rafting, hiking, repelling, climbing, ziplining, and biking, etc.,” Kessler said.

Kessler also questioned the logic of giving money to the private tourist railroad. If it will really increase riders, the railroad should be able to afford the improvements itself, or at least pay the money back.

“Why should we subsidize a private firm to get the steam train running for them?” Kessler asked.

Jackson County is still negotiating the terms of the deal with the train — essentially what Jackson would be guaranteed in return for putting up the money.

“I don’t think we are close to making an agreement at this point,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.


Train in the hand

The tourist train was once Dillsboro’s bread and butter. Its main depot and headquarters were there, but it pulled out of Dillsboro several years ago. Now, it only offers limited trips into Dillsboro as a layover destination for trains from Bryson City. The layovers are only 90 minutes, and only bring tourists to town on select days and select weeks out of the year.

Dillsboro merchants have struggled without the tourists the train once brought to their doorstep. The town has been laser focused on luring the train back during the past two years.

The grant from the county is intended to lure the train back to town. The $750,000 grant would help refurbish a steam engine, build engine turntables and make improvements to the maintenance yard. In exchange, the train would have to base at least half its trips with the new steam engine out of Dillsboro.

T.J. Walker, owner of the Dillsboro Inn, said the benefits of bringing a greater share of the train market back to Dillsboro can’t be overstated. He is not sure another plan like a whitewater park will come close filling its shoes.

“Having the train back in Dillsboro is by far the most job-boosting, economic-boosting thing we can do for our county and town,” Walker said.

Walker worried that a raging whitewater park may actually scare off fisherman, another source of tourists. 

But Kessler urged the town push to emphasize the Tuckasegee’s natural assets.

“We’ve got the water — no one else has water like this,” Kessler said. “What can be a better way to attract young people?”

County Commissioner Vickie Green is positioning herself to be one of the only commissioners who is outwardly preaching against entering into a hasty, and potentially risky, deal with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. As talks continue between the county and railroad, Green is asking why the rush. She said she’d like to see key financial records from the railroad before committing to any deal.

“I haven’t seen anything. I haven’t seen a thing,” Green said. “I don’t think it’s a wise investment for the county.”

Furthermore, if the county has that much money to spend on economic development, she has a few ideas of her own. She likes the sound of some sort of technology incubator project, investing in the Dillsboro Green Energy Park or creating a small business loan program instead of the deal on the table.

Several mini grants to small businesses and entrepreneurs could create more jobs than one big hand-out to a single business.

As the county prepares to hire an economic development director to work with its newly formed economic development committee, Green said it may be wise to wait and hand the train project over to them. She is also hesitant to grant $750,000 to the railroad without a clear county policy regarding such economic development deals.

“If you do something for the train, what will the next person ask for, and what will the commissioners base their decision on?” Green said.

While Green is preaching for more options to be considered, the whitewater advocates are the only organized contingency to emerge with an alternate plan.

Although a whitewater park can be extensive and costly, Kennon said the site should begin with a wave for freestyle paddling stunts, much like the one located in front of the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Swain County.

This September, the site will host the world freestyle championships, a discipline of paddle sports also known as playboating that involves flips, spins and other tricks on a standing wave in the water. And while the Nantahala River is raking in its share of the whitewater pie, the Tuckasegee is underutilized.

“This is a more a family-oriented rafting river: it’s warmer, deeper, better for hanging out,” Kennon said.

Dillsboro exists in the crossroads of some of the best kayaking in the country, due to combination of moderate climate, unique elevation and precipitous rainfall. Yet, many people drive by it on their way to the Nantahala.

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