That discontent could be the reason a proposed pedestrian plaza at the train depot in downtown has become a touchy subject. The idea was proposed by the Swain County Tourism Development Authority and supported by the railroad — which owns the property. But the town board hasn’t done its part to move the project forward.
“Since I’ve been alderman, this has been the most contentious issue we’ve faced,” said Alderman Rick Bryson. “There’s some resistance by locals to the train — they think the train has been treated better than other enterprises in town and they don’t want to see the train be handed any gifts, but this is not a gift. The train already owns the street.”
The town has been asked to relinquish its right of way for Fry Street, which would allow the street to be closed to vehicular traffic. While it seems like an easy task that wouldn’t cost the town or taxpayers any money, the board has been dragging its feet since being presented with the project last September.
Brad Walker, chairman of the Swain County Tourism Development Authority, said the proposal was presented to the town last fall and has since been addressing any questions from aldermen.
The plan would include closing Fry Street to have a walker-friendly plaza with trees, landscaping, an open lawn and a stage for live performances. The plan would also include paving the current gravel parking lot between the businesses on Fry Street for 35 parking spots.
“We’re trying everything we can to develop this town, and this is just one more piece of the puzzle,” Walker said. “We’re on a roll right now — business has been good here and I feel it will just keep increasing.”
Walker said the project would cost between $250,000 to $400,000 depending on the final plans and it would be paid for by TDA funds and grant money.
Merchants have mixed feelings
Bryson City merchants all have a common interest in keeping visitors downtown as long as possible to shop, eat and explore the area before they get in their cars and drive home. However, not every merchant is convinced that a pedestrian plaza will accomplish that goal.
Harold Frasher, owner of American Indian Trading Company on Fry Street, said parking is his main concern about the pedestrian plaza project. He said 35 parking spots would not solve the parking issues downtown caused mostly by train patrons.
“Where are the merchants going to park?” he asked. “How will delivery trucks get in to drop off orders?”
Right now Fry Street allows for several parking spots in front of each business and about eight ADA-accessible parking spots right in front of the train depot.
Frasher said the train charges passengers $5 to park in the railroad’s gravel lot, but many people will park along Everett or Fry Street to avoid the fee. He said the fee should be built into the train ticket price to keep more downtown parking available for locals.
Paige Christie, owner of The Cottage Craftsman on Fry Street, said the concept is a good one, but she also worries about how the parking issues will be addressed in the process. Also, if the project is approved, she hopes the construction would be completed in a timely manner so that businesses don’t lose what traffic they have.
“I think it’s a good idea as long as they take merchants’ needs into account and if they do what they say they’re going to do,” she said.
Ben King, co-owner of Bryson City Outdoors located on the corner of Main and Everett streets, said he was in favor of the pedestrian plaza and any other ideas that would make the town more pedestrian and family-friendly. While public parking is a commodity in Bryson City, King removed the few parking spaces in front of his business to put in a patio area.
“I intentionally blocked off our parking to have outdoor seating, and I hope it sets a precedent,” King said. “I think it’s a good idea to have areas that will allow people to congregate.”
King, a Bryson City native, is aware of the prickly relationship between the locals and the railroad, but he hopes those feelings can be put aside for the betterment of the town.
“People feel like the train riders don’t come into the stores and that nothing’s going to change,” he said. “But I don’t think (a pedestrian plaza) is going to hurt — I think it will help — but it’s venturing into something different and that can always be touchy.”
Jennifer Simon with Charles Heath Studio and Gallery thinks the pedestrian plaza is a fabulous idea that will benefit everyone.
“I’ve seen our community evolve while being able to maintain a good small-town feel,” she said about her 12 years of experience in Bryson City. “Any time there are planned activities for guests, it’s an opportunity for merchants, locals and visitors to benefit.”
Railroad all on board
Kim Albritton, vice president and general manager for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, said the plaza was a part of the GSMR’s master plan in 2002 when it moved its main depot to Bryson City. With the heavy foot traffic and visitors currently walking along the Fry Street area, she said creating a pedestrian plaza would make it safer for families and children visiting the railroad and neighboring shops and restaurants.
“The park would be a showcase for the town of Bryson City,” Albritton said. “Special events for the railroad and community events would be held in the area throughout the year, and it would be pedestrian-friendly.”
As for the parking issues, she said the railroad has heard those complaints and has responded accordingly. The railroad has presented a proposal that provides an improved public parking lot behind Cottage Craftsman and as of this season, the railroad for parking when tickets are reserved in advance of the trip instead of when they arrive at the train station.
Albritton said the railroad would work with the town and the TDA to write grants for the park and the paved parking lot improvements.
“If the pedestrian park development moves forward, the town really has nothing to lose,” she said.
Some of the concerns the town aldermen expressed to the railroad in November included the proposed name — Bryson City Railroad Square Park. Comments submitted by Alderman Jim Gribble suggested naming the plaza Fry Street Park or Fry Street Station Park.
“The proposal is for multiple uses with the railroad’s permission,” he wrote. “Are we doing this for our community or for the railroad?”
Alderman Janine Crisp agreed in her comments that the railroad shouldn’t be specifically singled out in the name.
“I believe this would go a long way in making our local people more comfortable with the closure of Fry Street,” she wrote.
While the proposal included leasing the upgraded parking lot to the TDA for 30 years with an option to renew for another 30, Crisp said the parking lot should then be subleased to the town indefinitely since the town would be agreeing to shut Fry Street indefinitely.
“Funding for the immediate improvements to the parking lot should be identified and funding source stated before the agreement is finalized,” she wrote. “These improvements should not be contingent upon grant funding as there will be, I’m sure, a considerable delay in receiving grant funds.”
Messages left with Crisp and Gribble were not returned.
Bryson said he was in favor of the plaza because of the improved aesthetics it would bring to the downtown area. He said the area would hopefully be a magnet for those who want to stroll around town for longer after their train rides.
“It would set Bryson City apart from any other small town in this state — there would be nothing else quite like it,” he said.
The next step will be for the town to state its intent to relinquish the right of way for Fry Street and schedule a public hearing to receive public input on the issue.