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Back to Dillsboro? Railroad considers moving Polar Express from Bryson City

Back to Dillsboro? Railroad considers moving Polar Express from Bryson City

While rumors are flying around town about the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad looking to move its Polar Express event from Bryson City to Dillsboro, nothing has been confirmed.

GSMR Vice President and General Manager Kim Albritton said last week that she would consider all other options after the Bryson City Board of Aldermen denied the railroad’s request to shut down Fry Street for 56 days during the winter event for safety reasons. 

Not pleased with the town’s decision to only close a portion of Fry Street, Albritton said one option would be to move the Polar Express back to the Dillsboro depot this November through January. Albritton did not respond to follow-up questions emailed to her on April 5. 

Rich Price, director of economic development in Jackson County, said he was not aware of any plans for the train to relocate the Polar Express back to Dillsboro. 

“I have not been following those particular discussions, nor has anyone from the railroad (or otherwise) reached out to my office in this specific regard,” he said via email last week. “I think it would be unfair, and frankly inappropriate, for me to speculate regarding any potential changes in the railroad’s Bryson City or Dillsboro operations, as I am unaware of any such considerations.”

But, even the suggestion — or threat as some are taking it — has created a firestorm on social media. People in Jackson County would love to see the event come back to Dillsboro.

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“Dillsboro is where it belongs, should never have been moved,” said Gerald Murray on Facebook. 

People in Bryson City are split on the issue — some think the railroad has been a bad neighbor since moving from Dillsboro to Bryson City in 2008 while many in the business community say losing the train would be detrimental to the local economy.

“Seems like Bryson City is shooting themselves in the foot with this,” said Cassie Gold on Facebook. “Dillsboro would benefit greatly from this and will do what it takes to get them to Dillsboro.”

“Bryson City should realize how much money the train brings in and bend over backwards to help keep the train will miss that money!” said Peggy Herring. 

Others say the town and county have bent over backward to help the train. Many locals have complained about the county and town governments showing preferential treatment toward the train at the expense of other businesses. They say the railroad always has its hands out asking for help and money. 

“Bryson City has bent over backwards to accommodate GSMR and all they want to do is play games. The town was able to get a building and acreage to move their public works into and the railroad wouldn’t give them a right-of-way to get to it, even though the road is already there,” said Martin Anthony on Facebook. “Fry St. has been closed for every event that the railroad has put on and as far as I know there were no plans to change anything. GSMR is just like a little kid that gets mad and decides to take their ball and go home. They’ve done it to Dillsboro and Andrews now they want to do it to Bryson.”

The town board did ask the railroad for an easement over GSMR property back in January so the town could purchase a 10-acre piece of property to use for vehicle and equipment storage. Available land in town is scarce and the town is in desperate need of storage space. The 10-acre tract was ideal for the town, but it could only be accessed by crossing over GSMR land. Alderman Rick Bryson said the railroad never responded to the easement request. 


Economic impact

While residents and merchants are split on their support of the Fry Street closure, the Swain County Chamber of Commerce has been encouraging its business membership to show support for the request and let their town officials know that losing Polar Express to Dillsboro is out of the question. 

“The Swain County Chamber of Commerce is committed to working with both the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and the Bryson City Town of Aldermen to successfully arrive at a vote for the temporary closure of Fry Street for the Polar Express event,” said Karen Wilmot, executive director of the chamber. “This event is critical for the success of our business community, its staff, and the community as a whole.” 

Without the Polar Express, Wilmot said the county could stand to lose about $218,000 and the town could lose $82,500 in sales tax revenue during the months of November and December. She said the train generates about $82,350 in room tax during those months as well, which is used to market Swain County and Bryson City. “November room tax has increased 465 percent from 2003 — the last year we didn’t have Polar Express — and December has increased 863 percent from 2003,” Wilmot said. “Unemployment in 2003 was 16.6 percent as compared to 10.5 percent in 2016. This translates to more than 800 jobs lost or laid off if Polar Express doesn’t happen in Swain County.”

The popularity of the railroad continues to grow overall — 72,000 people rode the train in 2014 compared to 84,000 in 2016. 

During the town board’s April 3 meeting, Bryson said he didn’t dispute the train’s economic impact, but said he was unwilling to close Fry Street completely at the detriment of other downtown merchants, who claimed their business went down the drain when the street was closed in the past. He also didn’t think the safety concerns were as dire as Albritton made it sound. 


Pedestrian plaza project

This isn’t the first time the town has been asked to close Fry Street. The railroad asked for the town for several years to close the street during the Polar Express to improve pedestrian safety and also asked the town in late 2014 to relinquish its right of way on the street so it could be closed permanently.

With the support of the Swain County Tourism Development Authority, the railroad proposed closing Fry Street permanently to improve safety concerns but also so the TDA and railroad could move forward with plans to construct a pedestrian plaza on the property.

The town spent over a year debating the issue and hearing public input before ultimately deciding last April to keep its right of way and keep Fry Street open. It was a divisive issue with passionate pleas from both sides. Supporters said Fry Street was dangerous for pedestrians and wanted to see the plaza completed to encourage more pedestrians to stick around town after their train ride while opposition claimed the closure of Fry Street would only harm the merchants. 

Aside from business concerns, the railroad made no commitment to fund any portion of the plaza project even though it owns the street and its real estate arm own the buildings on Fry Street. The TDA didn’t have any funding secured either — though the TDA board said it planned to go after grants to pay for it. The project was estimated to cost between $250,000 and $450,000 depending on the final design.

The town voted 3 to 1 to maintain its right of way on Fry Street — Alderman Heidi Woodard was the only board member in opposition. She also voted in favor of allowing the temporarily closure of Fry Street this coming winter, but was once again outvoted by her fellow aldermen. 


Last Fry Street closure

The railroad was given a chance to show what a permanent closure of Fry Street would look like, but the town board was not happy with the result. The town allowed Fry Street to be closed for the Polar Express from November 2015 through January 2016 but it wasn’t long before Fry Street merchants began complaining about a drop off in the their business. 

Paige Christie, owner of the Cottage Craftsman, reported that her sales were down a third compared to the previous year because of the way the railroad handled the street closure for the Polar Express.

Metal barricades were placed at the Fry Street entrance closest to Everett Street and the Polar Express banners were used to cover the fences, which gave the impression that the five businesses on Fry Street weren’t open. The railroad failed to put up signage to let people know businesses were open despite the street closure. 

Christie also said the railroad placed a large tent in front of her shop while the street was closed for children to sit and write letters to Santa. It blocked visibility to her store on the backside of Fry Street, but the company moved the tent once she complained about it. 

In December 2016, Christie announced that the lease she had for 11 years with Railroad Realty, an arm of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, was not renewed.  

Since Railroad Realty leases to all the Fry Street merchants, finding a new downtown location for her business was a challenge. Cottage Craftsman finally decided to merge with The Wild Fern at 15 Everett Street. She can’t help but to think there was some correlation between her speaking out about the Fry Street closure and her lease not getting renewed. 

“I can’t say for certain that my lease was not renewed due to me speaking out. But after 11 years in that location, nothing else had changed but me speaking out,” Christie said. “I can’t draw 100 percent correlation, and the train leadership made no direct statements that this was the case. They gave no reason, in fact — and honestly they don’t have to — the property is theirs and they can rent to whoever they want, no explanation needed.”

It hasn’t been an easy transition for Christie, who says the Cottage Craftsman had slowly become the No. 1 non-outdoor related business in downtown Bryson City on Trip Advisor. She said many of her repeat customers are upset with the move and others are having a had time finding her products now that she’s sharing space with The Wild Fern. 

It would seem having such a high volume of pedestrians on Fry Street during the Polar Express and other special train events would have boosted the Cottage Craftsman’s business, but Christie said that wasn’t the case. 

“In the first nine years in that location, The Cottage Craftsman had no difficulty through the late fall and early winter season, and that was with a lot fewer than 80,000 people walking by the door,” she said. “The drop in business over the 10th and 11th years occurred in correlation to the road closure. Numbers were also down in July of 2016 from all 10 previous years, with the Wizard of Oz road closure in what was traditionally the second busiest month of the year.” 

In November and December of 2015, she said there were days when 6,000 people were outside for the train and only 20 to 30 would enter her business. She said the railroad was beneficial to local restaurants, hotels and kid-friendly businesses, but not for her business in particular. 

“The Cottage Craftsman, as a handcrafted art gallery and wine shop, has always been a business designed for adults,” Christie said. “I could not, realistically, for the months November and December, turn that business into a kid-centered-adventure-palace.”

Ironically, Christie said she was never opposed to the permanent closure of Fry Street as long as there was some kind of promise the pedestrian plaza would actually be completed in a timely manner — something that never happened.   

“As a former Fry Street business owner, I can state that the problem has always been with the damage done to the business on the south side due to temporary closures, which leaves the street looking abandoned and completely uninviting to those folks casually walking up and down Everett Street,” she said. 

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