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Business growth in 2015 gives Dillsboro hope for brighter future

fr dillsboroEver since the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad left Dillsboro in 2008, the little town has been just barely chugging along. But if the last year is any indication, things could be turning around for the tourist-centered village.

“It’s exciting, and I think I see some light at the end of our tunnel that has been dark for several years,” said Debbie Coffey, town clerk for Dillsboro. 

Part of that light comes from the new cohort of businesses that has filled up some of Dillsboro’s empty storefronts, a new chapter built on the foundation of stalwarts that rode out the hard times since 2008 — businesses like Dogwood Crafters, Treehouse Pottery, Oaks Pottery, Riverwood Pottery and Nancy Tut’s Christmas Shop. 

“We usually see three or four new ones a year, and we usually have two or three a year we lose,” Coffey said, “so we are making slow progress in growing.”

If that’s the norm, then 2015 was a banner year for Dillsboro, with five new businesses moving in and low loss of existing businesses. This year, Dillsboro welcomed Haywood Smokehouse, Our Place, Shampoochy, Venturo’s Good Italian Eats, the Artsy Olive and Coach’s Bistro. While Hopberry’s went out of business, Our Place moved into the space, and Haywood Smokehouse took over the building previously occupied by Dillsboro Smokehouse. Bradley’s General Store closed, but the same owners moved into a smaller building to open a new business, Riverbend Frozen Delights. 

“We’re doing a lot better than we did during the height of the recession, and I see us making progress,” said Mayor Mike Fitzgerald. 

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So far, the new businesses seem to be doing pretty well. 

“It’s all word of mouth right now,” said Linda Venturo, owner of Venturo’s, a café and bakery that opened in late May. “It’s paying for itself, which is really good.”

“On the average, they probably spend at least 100 bucks apiece,” Steve Smith, who with his wife Stephanie sells locally crafted, country-style home décor items at their shop Our Place, said of his customers. “For such a small little shop such as we are, that’s great. We got a quota we try to meet every day, and to this point on an average we have met that.”

“We was taking dogs before we even opened the doors,” said Phillip Tomlinson, who opened the pet grooming shop Shampoochy on Dec. 1 with his husband Russell. “We were already doing groomings before we even opened entirely.”

It’s been a pretty great year, agreed Lisa Potts of Nancy Tut’s Christmas Shop. Potts has owned the store overlooking downtown for more than 20 years, riding the wave of retail through the crest of the 90s and down through the valley of the recession. Based on the way 2015 is ending, she sees reason to be hopeful for the future. 

“I think things are growing. Business is picking up,” she said. “My sales have increased tremendously (over last year).”

It’s hard to say exactly why that is. Chalk it up to overall economic improvement — the train’s pulling out coincided with the onset of the 2008 recession, hitting Dillsboro with a one-two punch — or to the town’s effort to define itself as something more than just an attraction for train riders, to the plummeting gas prices that have made travel more affordable this year or to the economic incentive ordinance the town council passed this year. Dillsboro gave its first cash grant — a $10,000 sum based on job creation, meant to offset startup costs such as water/sewer fees and deposit checks — to Haywood Smokehouse. 

Whatever the reason, the results are encouraging. 

“It’s not as good as when the train left, but it’s getting better than that period when it wasn’t here at all,” said Potts. 

The train isn’t completely gone from Dillsboro. While the railroad no longer starts and ends trips from the Dillsboro depot, it will typically run several routes per week from the Bryson City station that include a 1.5-hour layover in Dillsboro. The spill-out of riders during that brief time period is still instrumental in keeping the town afloat.

“There isn’t a whole lot of (foot) traffic without the train or the holidays,” said Amy Garcia of the Artsy Olive, a shop selling olive oil, balsamic vinegar and paintings. The store opened in April, a second location for owner Jeffry Jurasinski, who opened his first store in Gatlinburg. 

So the train is still important. The difference, business owners say, is that it’s no longer the sole source of retail life in Dillsboro. 

“The railroad is a tremendous additional benefit to what’s already a pretty hopping little town,” said Joe Beasley, co-owner of Haywood Smokehouse. “I think as we work together to try to deliver more things for them to do here — that being people on the train or visitors in general — I think we’ll be in growth mode here.” 

Beasley, who also owns the original Smokehouse in Waynesville, said he decided to open the second location in Dillsboro because of the short travel distance between the two restaurants and because of an inviting opportunity — the Dillsboro Smokehouse had closed, so he had a chance to expand his business into a space already suited to his needs. 

It’s proven to have been a good decision, he said, and he’s “very, very pleased with the move.” 

A plus for businesses like Beasley’s and Venturo’s is that they’re not geared exclusively toward tourists. While locals might not be interested in buying items from boutique stores at the rate needed to sustain those businesses, they do eat barbeque and drink coffee with regularity. 

Drawing locals to Dillsboro can only be a good thing, said Potts, who believes her location between Venturo’s and Coach’s is partially responsible for her above-average sales this year. 

It’s not just the restaurants that are hoping to target the local market, however. 

“We really wanted to concentrate on the local people, because a happy customer’s going to be a repeat customer,” Smith said. “If we can get the local people to come in — train or not — that’s going to be our bread and butter.” 

For its first two years, Our Place was located in Cherokee, but that business location was a bit difficult as the store’s country-themed rustic merchandise wasn’t a good fit for customers seeking Native American souvenirs.

“We were hoping to expand with our clientele coming from all different areas,” Smith said. 

The Dillsboro location picks up the traffic that’s already headed to Cherokee via U.S. 441, but it’s also at the center of a crossroads for locals of Franklin, Sylva, Waynesville, Bryson City — a broader customer base. 

“We didn’t set out coming here based on the train. That’s just an added benefit. We really wanted to concentrate on the local people,” he said.  

While hope is in the air among Dillsboro merchants, it still wouldn’t be accurate to say that Dillsboro’s all recovered. Walk around town, and it’s not hard to find yourself standing outside an empty storefront. 

“We’ve noticed it since we came back,” said Tomlinson, who’s from the area but recently moved back after a stint in Chicago. “Dillsboro needs a little bit of revitalization.” 

Expanding the repertoire of festivals could be part of that. Dillsboro added a few new ones this year, and shop owners say that those weekends are instrumental in giving a boost to business. So much so that Venturo’s keeping notes so she can remember how to make the most of those events next year. 

“Usually in the morning it’s kind of dead, but the day of the pottery festival everybody was here early,” Venturo said. “Next year, I’ll know what I need to do.” 

Dillsboro’s not without its problems and challenges for the future. But on the whole — at least from Potts’ hilltop view — things are on the upswing. 

“I’m real positive about it,” she said. “Very optimistic.”

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