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Town deems temporary Fry Street closure a failure

fr frystreetWhile November is usually still a busy time for downtown Bryson City merchants, Paige Christie said her sales are down a third over last year.

Christie’s business, The Cottage Craftsman, is one of five businesses located on Fry Street, which has been temporarily shut off to vehicular traffic since the beginning of November at the request of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. 

“My business has gone in the toilet,” Christie said. “This experiment is verging on putting me out of business.”

The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and the Swain County Tourism Development Authority asked the town more than a year ago to consider the permanent closure of the street adjacent to the train depot so that the railroad and TDA could begin applying for grants to construct a pedestrian plaza in that area. 

The Bryson City Board of Aldermen is still debating whether the town should relinquish its right-of-way on Fry Street to allow the street to be closed. As a test run, the town agreed to shut down the street from November through the first week in January during the train’s Polar Express excursions.

Alderman Rick Bryson voted in favor of the temporary closure to see how the businesses along Fry Street would fare if vehicles couldn’t park in front of the shops. It’s a decision he now regrets.

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“At this point if someone recommended the temporary closure, I would not vote for it because of the way it’s been handled,” Bryson said during a board meeting Monday night. “It’s starving at least three of the five businesses on that street.”

The closure of Fry Street was supposed to make the area surrounding the train depot more pedestrian friendly, but Bryson said the signage and fencing put up by the railroad makes the street look barricaded off to the public. He said he spoke to four of the five businesses on the street and three of them said the closure had negatively impacted their businesses. 

GSMR owns Fry Street and all the buildings on the street, which puts the merchants in an uncomfortable position. They don’t want to anger their landlord by complaining, but if something doesn’t change, Christie said, she wouldn’t be able to keep her business open through the winter. 

Christie said she was in favor of permanently closing off Fry Street if the railroad could guarantee it plans to do what it says it wants to do — construct a pedestrian-friendly plaza with new infrastructure. However, the railroad hasn’t made any commitments in writing to satisfy residents and businesses that are skeptical of the project coming to fruition. 

The town has held two public hearings to receive input on whether to relinquish the right-of-way. Many who spoke in favor of the street closure focused on safety. With so many train passengers coming and going from the depot, proponents argued that closing Fry Street to vehicular traffic would make the area more pedestrian-friendly. 

Sarah Pressley, marketing manager for the GSMR, said the temporary closure has been successful on the railroad’s end. 

“Over 40,000 visitors of the Polar Express, in addition to the general visitors of Bryson City, have been able to navigate that area safely and worry free without the threat of motorized traffic,” she said. “Furthermore we are relieved that the anticipated 40,000-plus passengers expected before the end of the Polar Express event will have the same experience when visiting Bryson City.”

But the thousands of children riding the train and filtering out onto Fry Street don’t benefit Christie’s business, which offers more adult merchandise like wine, fine foods and handcrafted items. To make matters worse, Christie said, the railroad placed a large circus-like tent in front of her business once the street was closed where children could sit and write letters to Santa. The tent blocked visibility to her store for several weeks. 

Pressley said the railroad staff did receive feedback from one of its merchant tenants — The Cottage Craftsman — who expressed concern and action was taken to improve the situation. 

“Based upon the concerns that were brought to our attention we immediately modified our event set-up and fulfilled all the requests that were proposed,” she said. “GSMR has also provided clear and consistent signage to indicate the businesses on Fry Street are open. We provided signage to note the appropriate parking designated for not only employees of the businesses but for the patrons as well.”

Christie appreciated GSMR relocating the tent away from her business, but it took more than two weeks for someone to respond to her complaints. When her phone calls and emails to her landlord went unanswered, she sent the email again and copied it to the town board of aldermen, GSMR General Manager Kim Albritton and the railroad’s corporate office in Durango, Colorado. 

“That’s when the tent was moved — well after the damage was done,” she said. 

Christie said she hopes the railroad and the town will look at other options for improving safety on Fry Street before deciding whether to shut it down for good. She said newly painted lines on the street and the parking spaces and more lighting would be a great improvement. Another suggestion is to close the street only from 3 to 10 p.m. on the evenings the train is running instead of all day, every day.  

At a previous board meeting, Bryson mentioned that the town might be able to close the street without giving up the right of way. That would allow the town to still be in control of the street while also improving safety. 

Pressley said that wouldn’t work. If the town does relinquish the right-of-way and the street closure is granted, she said, GSMR would be eligible for multiple channels of grant funding through PARTF (North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund) for such projects. 

“If the area is closed but the town does not relinquish the rights to use it, we believe the eligibility of said funds would cease and any enhancement projects would have to be fully funded by local government entities and beyond,” Pressley said. “The original proposal of this relinquishment and closure includes a 30-year lease of the area to the Swain County TDA, further demonstrating GSMR’s desire to continue to work with the town and county to enhance our community.”

Town board members seemed just as frustrated about the situation. Alderman Jim Gribble suggested forming a joint committee between the town and the railroad to hash out some of these issues. Bryson City Town Manager Josh Ward said he would contact the railroad and come up with a day and time everyone can meet. 

“I think the railroad is a bad neighbor and I’ll continue to believe that until they change their ways,” Gribble said.

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