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Old Swain courthouse holds promise as museum, visitor center

A visitor center that would showcase the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a local heritage museum could one day occupy the Swain County historic courthouse on Everett Street if and when the senior center currently in the courthouse moves out.

The visitors center will be run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit that also runs a visitors center near the Smokemont Park entrance in Tennessee. The group has already pledged $100,000 to construct the center, according to Dan Wood, executive director of Swain County Partnership for the Future.

“They’ve been wanting a presence over on this part of the Park for a long time, and it’s a good fit right there with the Chamber of Commerce nearby,” said Wood.

Wood said the visitors center will feature five or six plasma screen televisions, one with a touch screen electronic map. The center will also house a small sandwich shop with drinks and coffee.

“We think a welcome center ... will bring more and more tourists to this area to stop by and map out their trip,” said Wood.

Wood and others had hoped to begin construction of the visitors center as early as March, but it’s now on hold indefinitely until the senior center can be relocated. Plans called for moving the senior center into a new building, but the county ran out of money to finish it.

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The new senior center is being built with grant money, but the county only got half the grants it needed. Construction was launched with hopes more grant money would come through to complete it, but so far that hasn’t happened and the half-completed structure is in a holding pattern.

“Everything has ground to a halt with the senior center,” Wood said.

Wood is also reviving the idea for a Swain County history museum and heritage center to occupy the historic courthouse.

The idea has been tossed around for years. Initial plans called for the museum to focus on Swain County stories of national significance, including the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the creation of Fontana Lake, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the region’s natural history.

A three-year planning process identified stories to be highlighted and work collecting oral histories was completed. A cost estimate was done, putting the total project cost at $1.5 million.

“Then, it kind of fell into a black hole of nothingness,” Wood said of the project. “Until I got here about a year ago, nothing had been done since 2004.”

Wood said arranging a move for the senior center has held up the process of planning for a visitors center and museum, which has been admittedly slow.

“Things move like a glacier,” he said. “But now, we’ve started to get money. I’ve written two separate grants (for the visitors center), and they both look good.”

Wood said the museum is likely at least two years from completion.

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