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Regional leaders work for rail growth

One needn’t look further than industries like Sylva’s Jackson Paper, Canton’s Evergreen Packaging and Waynesville’s Giles Chemical for evidence of how rail access benefits the economy in small Western North Carolina towns.

Thus it’s no surprise that there’s a substantial group of regional players looking to maintain and expand its presence in the area.

“We’re trying to jump start the whole initiative of rail in the region,” said Ray Rapp, co-chair of the WNC Rail Committee, which is charged with promoting the improvement and expansion of rail in the region.

Rapp is a former mayor of Mars Hill and a former four-term N.C. House member who helped lead the WNCRC’s Railroads and Regional Economic Development Conference Sept. 22 in Asheville, where a group of almost 100 economic developers, nonprofit leaders and railroad industry executives — from companies large and small — joined local legislators to discuss transportation priorities in North Carolina.

“Swain County has the highest sales tax income of any county in my district, which is impressive,” said Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who was part of a legislative panel discussion at the conference. “The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad has really put them on the map, and if you visited Bryson City 20 years ago, you’d be amazed today.”

Davis represents all counties west of Buncombe and chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

“I think that’s why Sen. Berger appointed me to the Transportation Committee — I do 630 miles a week on the highways,” he joked, referring to his drive from Raleigh to Franklin during the legislative session.

All freight, Davis noted, stops in Jackson County, with Jackson Paper in Sylva.

“Freight’s not economically viable due to millions needed in bridge and trestle repair needs,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean Davis is opposed to prioritizing transportation; he said he’s heading to Washington, D.C., soon to discuss federal funds for dredging.

“We have many transportation challenges. It’s fascinating to me. So much of our transportation challenges are data-driven,” he said, noting that as a practicing orthodontist, he prefers fact-based decision-making.

“I don’t like to spend money,” he said. “I like to invest money. Show me the data.”

To have a local senator chair the Senate’s Transportation Committee is a huge bonus for WNC, but the region is well represented in the legislature.

Asheville’s Democratic Sen. Terry Van Duyn is a member of Davis’ committee and was also at the event.

“I think for Americans, trains are in our DNA. They totally changed life in America,” said the Chicago native who once flipped burgers in her family’s train-themed restaurant.

Burnsville Republican Rep. Michele Presnell, who was not at the conference, lends further local influence in the House, where she co-chairs the Appropriations — Transportation Committee.

Gaston County Republican Rep. John Torbett, who participated with Davis and Van Duyn, is one of four co-chairs of the House Transportation Committee, along with Cleveland County Republican Kelly Hastings.

The final panelist, Fairview Democratic Rep. John Ager, serves on the House’s powerful Appropriations Committee.

Asheville Republican Congressman Mark Meadows sits on the U.S. House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and wasn’t present, but did have a representative in the crowd.

With all that local influence in all the right places, WNC is nicely positioned to take advantage of opportunities to bolster its rail economy.

“Obviously the county’s interested in rail,” said Haywood County Attorney Chip Killian, who attended the conference. Haywood County government doesn’t have a representative on the WNC rail committee, but Killian said he had briefed County Manager Ira Dove on the conference.

Killian cautioned that railroads wouldn’t expand their Haywood County presence until there is enough industry to support it.

One such place could be the former Lea Industries facility, located behind the new Ingles in Hazelwood, according to Mark Clasby of the Haywood Economic Development Council. He said that an old rail spur that had been torn up could be reinstalled relatively inexpensively.

He also said that passenger or excursion service would be most welcome and could revitalize Waynesville’s Frog Level district — something that would be great for tourism.

“We would like to see an excursion line come in to the area,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and member of the WNC Rail Committee. “Any additional rail service would be good for economic development.”

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