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As rockslide cleanup trudges on, misleading detour signs plague tourism industry

The cost of repairing Interstate 40 after a massive rockslide in late October will now be borne by the federal government instead of the state.

Last week, the Federal Highway Administration agreed to use emergency relief funds to fully reimburse the state for the cleanup efforts, which have closed a 20-mile section of road near the Tennessee border that usually sees about 25,000 vehicles every day.

Latest estimates show the total repair bill would run between $7 and $9 million, according to North Carolina Department of Transportation spokesman Jerry Higgins.

Governor Beverly Perdue declared the I-40 rockslide a disaster shortly after the rockslide occurred, opening up doors to federal emergency funds, which help state and local governments pay for repairs due to floods, tornadoes, landslides and other natural disasters.

Next on Perdue’s wishlist are low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration for local businesses reeling from the impact of the road closure. Some Haywood County motels, restaurants, and gas stations that rely heavily on traffic from I-40 have seen a dramatic drop in business after the road closure at exit 20.

Haywood County tourism officials have said a false perception that the road closure has blocked off access to all of Western North Carolina has adversely affected the local economy.

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The DOT has given contrasting reports on when it expects to reopen I-40. While Higgins reported that he expected the cleanup to take “at least three more months,” a press release issued by Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, stated DOT officials expect I-40 to remain closed for about another month.

So far, workers have blasted apart mammoth boulders and hauled away about 4,000 tons of debris to a nearby U.S. Forest Service site. Last week, a fleet of 15 trucks transported 200 loads of rock, which will be stockpiled for future road repairs.

As many as eight workers hand-carried between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of explosives up the slope so they could be set in the holes for detonation, according to the DOT.


A disastrous situation

If the Small Business Administration decides to open up economic injury loans to the region, struggling businesses in WNC could apply for assistance in covering everyday expenses, from keeping people on payroll to just keeping the lights on.

Despite feeling the most immediate impact from the rockslide, businesses from Haywood County would not be the only ones eligible for the loans. Businesses from all contiguous counties, including Buncombe, Henderson, Jackson, Madison, Swain and Transylvania counties, could claim SBA loans.

SBA has made it standard procedure to offer up loans to the affected county and all surrounding counties, according to Julia Jarema, spokeswoman for N.C. Emergency Management.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get the loans,” said Jarema. “They have to show a need.”

Some businesses in Haywood County have already demonstrated such a need for assistance.

Gina Shuler, who manages the Days Inn in Canton near I-40 , estimates that business there has dropped by more than 70 percent after the rockslide.

“It’s really taken a toll on everything,” said Shuler. “We’re probably going to have to start laying people off. It’s a really hard time.”

Shuler said the motel already faced a rough two years with the recession. Now, the motel is seeing nights when only two rooms out of forty are occupied.

“We’re just really going day by day,” said Shuler. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next week.”

The Midway Motel, near exit 20 where I-40 is blocked off, is another business that’s gravely suffering due to the rockslide.

Owner Brooke Gayne said last week that she did not have a single person in the motel.

Nevertheless, Gayne is reluctant to apply for the loans should they become available.

“That would be a last resort,” said Gayne. “Because you’d have to pay it back.”

Summer Smart, a waitress at nearby Haywood Cafe, said locals have kept the restaurant going, but she anticipated a big drop in the number of holiday travelers.

For now, most of the travelers who stop by are just looking for directions to places like Cherokee and Gatlinburg.

Smart has noticed the Pilot truck stop across the road is faring especially poorly.

“It’s really like a ghost town over there,” said Smart. “I feel sorry for them. All their business is truckers and travelers.”


Broadcasting the right message

Some members of the tourism and business community are working hard to publicize the fact that WNC is still accessible, hoping to stop travelers from steering away from the area after seeing I-40 closure signs.

Cece Hipps, executive director of Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, said DOT signs that inform travelers about the rockslide are correct but don’t do enough to dispel the perception that I-40 is closed to the mountains.

“You can’t really read the entire sign anyway,” said Hipps. “If you’re traveling 70 miles per hour, you see ‘I-40 closed’ only.”

But Hipps said the DOT understands the urgency of the matter and is probably doing its best.

“I don’t think we should point fingers at anyone,” said Hipps. “The problem is that our customers are not getting the message.”

Mary Jane Ferguson, director of marketing for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is considering the possibility of pooling resources with tourism agencies to put out a billboard that makes it loud and clear to travelers that WNC is still open for business.

But Ferguson said paying for that billboard would difficult since her budget is already strapped due to the recession.

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