Bryson City to keep Fry Street open
Alderwoman Heidi Woodard’s motion for the town to abandon the right-of-way on Fry Street was met with silence at Monday night’s Bryson City board meeting, but town leaders say that doesn’t mean the issue is dead.
Fry Street has been a reoccurring item on the town agenda for more than a year, but board members keep finding reasons to put off making a decision. It was tabled so the board could get public comment, it got tabled so aldermen could do more research and it even got tabled when a board member missed a meeting. Mayor Tom Sutton finally gave the board a deadline last month to reach a decision on the controversial issue once and for all.
The boardroom Monday night was packed with people who wanted the town to relinquish the right-of-way, which would allow the street to be closed off to vehicle traffic, but they were disappointed with the decision to keep the street open.
“I am a little disappointed with the decision, but am not surprised,” Woodard said. “This has been such an emotional issue in our town and county with people feeling strongly either one way or another, and there is still information that needs to be obtained regarding property ownership at Fry Street.”
Fry Street is located right downtown between the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad train depot and a plaza of businesses. With the support of the Swain County Tourism Development Authority, the railroad asked the town in late 2014 to give up the right-of-way so that the street could be shut down to improve safety concerns but also so the TDA and railroad could move forward with plans to construct a pedestrian plaza.
The town held two public hearings to give residents a chance to weigh in on the decision. A majority of people liked the idea of creating a more pedestrian-friendly area in the heart of downtown, but they didn’t trust that the railroad would follow through with its promise to do so. Many Bryson City residents said they felt like the train gets special treatment while other businesses are left to fend for themselves.
Many people who spoke at the public hearings agreed there were safety concerns on Fry Street because of pedestrian traffic from the train mixing with vehicle traffic to and from the surrounding businesses.
The town gave the idea a chance, though, by allowing a temporary closure of the street during the winter months when the train holds its popular Polar Express excursions. When it was all said and done, the town felt like the railroad didn’t handle the temporary closure well. Fry Street merchants complained that their sales plummeted because the railroad put up signage and barricades giving the appearance that people couldn’t even walk down the street to access businesses.
Alderman Rick Bryson, who had initially been in support of the street closure and the plaza project, changed his mind at that point and instead started to look at how the town could address the issues on Fry Street.
Alderman Jim Gribble has made his opposition to the closure well known since the beginning, and Alderwoman Janine Crisp has stayed fairly quiet on the issue. But when Woodard made the motion to relinquish the right-of-way and none of the other aldermen would even entertain the motion with a second, it was clear the board wasn’t going to give up the right-of-way.
Bryson said it wouldn’t be the last time Fry Street is discussed, though. He said the board was starting a conversation about how to improve safety on Fry Street without having to give up the right-of-way and shut it down to vehicle traffic.
Woodard said a discussion followed regarding maintenance of Fry Street, and the board authorized the town manager to draw new lines on the street and install a crosswalk to make it a safer area for pedestrians.
“My main concern has been the safety of pedestrians in the area of Fry Street, which would be solved through the creation of a pedestrian park, since this is not a possibility at this time, the town will be taking measures to better designate that area as a street,” Woodard said.
The street also needs to be repaved as it is riddled with loose gravel and potholes, but Bryson said that would probably have to wait. The town has already spent most of its road maintenance money on higher-priority road paving, but perhaps Fry Street could be included in next year’s budget.