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Dillsboro allocates $25K for economic incentives

fr dillsboroIt’s been a tough few years for the tiny town of Dillsboro. Ever since the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad moved its depot in 2008 to Bryson City, the town has seen rough times, reflected in the vacant storefronts of the many tourist-oriented business that have closed their doors since then.

“Around Christmastime when we have the Christmas lights out, it’s kind of dark at some of the stores and eerie to be walking around,” said Mayor Mike Fitzgerald. 

But after designating $25,000 in economic incentive money last week, the town board is hoping to reverse that situation. 

“I think we’re going to have to be proactive,” said Vice Mayor David Jones. 

Being proactive, the town board decided, meant developing a way to dole out incentives to businesses looking to make an investment in Dillsboro. 

“A lot of times when you talk about incentives, people think you’re talking about giving away the farm,” said Jackson County Economic Development Director Rich Price, who had been invited to the meeting. “There’s multiple things that can be looked at as being incentives.”

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In fact, Price has been studying up on the issue for the county, working with County Manager Chuck Wooten to put together a set of economic incentive policies for county commissioners to consider later this year. 

Incentives can take a number of forms. For example, they can include cash grants or property tax rebates based on the number of jobs a company creates, or they can be infrastructure subsidies, such as reduced prices on sewer or water fees.

The board can create a stated policy that outlines what kinds of business are eligible for what kind of incentive, Price said, or it could go for a discretionary policy, a “menu” of incentives that are available.

“It’s important that everyone doesn’t necessarily qualify. It’s your discretion whether you want to award grants or not,” Price said.  

The Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority, on whose board Fitzgerald serves, is also looking at creating some economic incentive policies. TWASA charges impact fees to new developments to help cover the cost of delivering water and sewer service, but the authority is looking at developing policies to keep those fees from deterring new businesses. 

“We’ve been working on a formula to lessen the severity of the impact fees when someone opens a business. But it’s still in the production stage,” Fitzgerald said. 

Over the coming months, Dillsboro will continue to hammer out exactly what its policies should look like, Fitzgerald said. They’ve agreed on an amount of money to set aside for economic development, but they’re not yet decided on how to use it. 

“We need some advice,” he said. “We’ve never done this before.”

But it’s got to happen, he said, telling the board about his own experience riding the train from Bryson City, only to find very few things to do in Dillsboro upon arriving. 

“When the passengers come to town, our area’s getting a black eye because they ride the train from Bryson City, and with nothing open it’s hard to get a drink or something to eat,” he said. “It bothers me when we have visitors come to our part of the country and we have a less than stellar presentation.”

It doesn’t have to be that way.

“I believe, personally, that there’s a lot of value in this little town and a lot of things that potentially can be done,” Price told the board. 

The town is at the intersection of multiple U.S. highways and not far from Western Carolina University. Even though the railroad no longer has Dillsboro as its hub, it still runs routes that bring more than 20,000 people to town each year. There’s plenty of opportunity for Dillsboro to thrive, Price said. 

There’s still a few months to go before tourist season kicks in, Fitzgerald said. In the meantime, hopefully the board will be able to develop an incentive policy that will give future seasons in Dillsboro a lot more hustle and bustle. 

“I go back to the old adage of you have to give people a reason to be somewhere before they’ll be somewhere,” Price said. “That applies to any town or any business.”

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