Haywood County braces for economic impacts of prolonged I-40 closure
By all indications, the closing of Interstate 40 due to a massive rockslide will be more than just a minor headache for many.
Through traffic heading west to Tennessee will be directed to I-26 from Asheville, where cars would have to travel 130 miles to link back up with I-40 across the state line.
Though much of Haywood County will still remain accessible off I-40, it’s feasible that widespread news of the rockslide might turn off visitors to the area.
Most likely to suffer from the road closing are the restaurants, gas stations, motels and tourist-oriented businesses that rely heavily on traffic coming through I-40.
Pilot Travel Center, a truck stop in Waynesville near exit 24, was already feeling the impact of a desolate I-40 on Monday afternoon. A few trucks were scattered here and there, but the vast majority of parking spots sat empty.
Ashley Duckett, an employee at the Pilot convenience store, said business was “dead” on Sunday, the day the rockslide occurred.
“It’s usually booming,” said Linda Henry, another employee at the store, adding that business will definitely hurt without truckers stopping by to fuel up, have a meal, or take a shower.
The people who did walk into the store were only interested in one thing: directions.
“Every other person coming in here is asking how do I get to Tennessee? How do I get to Knoxville? How do I get to Gatlinburg?” said Henry.
The store received so many requests for directions that the manager taped up directions on the door and readied a pile of printouts of Mapquest directions at the counter.
Next door at the Midway Motel, owner Brooke Gayne said she didn’t expect anyone to check in Monday night.
“It’ll be bad,” said Gayne. “I don’t see too many people coming past [exit] 27.”
Exit 27 leads to the heavily-trafficked Great Smoky Mountain Expressway.
Summer Smart, a waitress at the Haywood Cafe near exit 24 on I-40, said the restaurant had not seen one trucker all day.
Smart remembered a drop-off in business after the last rockslide in 1997 closed down a section of I-40 for months. Though locals remained faithful customers, holiday travelers who usually flooded the restaurant were hard to find that year.
James Carver, owner of Maggie Valley Restaurant, also recalled facing a hardship after the last rockslide.
“Business went down a great bit,” said Carver. “It just brought everything to a standstill.”
Carver said businesses would continue to feel an impact even after N.C. DOT cleans up the rockslide and restores traffic.
“It takes a while for word to get around that everything’s open,” said Carver.
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce are already working hard to spread the word about alternate routes to keep tourists from Tennessee trickling into the region.
The TDA will post these very detailed directions on its Web site and social media sites, attaching to their Web site a map with alternate routes.
“With several alternate routes available, there really is no reason to cancel any travel plans to the area, whether for these last weeks of leaf-looking or the upcoming ski season,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority
Collins reassures those forced to make the detour that there are “terrific scenic routes with some amazing views along the way.”
Wayne Carson, a staff member at the Canton visitor’s center off I-40, said he’s noted a spike in the number of visitors who want to avoid the interstate anyway.
He said all summer, tourists have requested directions for traveling on back roads and visiting smaller communities on the way.
Carson directed some confused visitors headed toward Gatlinburg through Cherokee and then over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park via U.S. 441 on Monday. It is possible that towns along that route will see a pick-up in visitors who would have normally taken I-40 to Tennessee.
Unlike the 1997 rockslide, which shut down roads for the peak summer and fall seasons, this latest rockslide occurred at the beginning of the off-season for most businesses.
“Fall foliage is winding down, but we’re going into ski season. We don’t want to jeopardize that either,” said Collins.
According to Collins, many visitors who come to ski at Cataloochee Ski Area come from the Southeast, not Tennessee.
Tammy Brown, spokeswoman for the ski resort, said they still anticipate a good ski season since a colder than average winter has been forecasted.
Brown said the rockslide will definitely impact business, but by how much is anyone’s guess.
“We’re going to do our best to facilitate individuals from that neck of the woods,” said Brown.
Meanwhile, Alice Mosteller, vice president of a real estate agency in Waynesville, is worried that the rockslide might negatively affect a real estate market that’s just beginning to pick up.
“Just anything that would keep people from coming here is not good,” said Mosteller. “This is the most beautiful time of year possible. What a horrible weekend for it to happen.”