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New mayor embraces new face of Bryson City

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The election of Brad Walker, Bryson City’s new mayor, is more than just a changing of the guard — it’s representative of how the tiny Swain County town has transformed in recent years from a remote location in the Smokies to a much sought-after tourist destination.

Bryson City is making its mark as an adventure capital, attracting a host of outsiders who take advantage of nearby outdoors opportunities and its quaint downtown area. Walker, 63, isn’t exactly new to the area — he’s lived here for 30 years — but he’s one of the only Bryson City mayors not to have been born and raised in town.

Walker hails from Virginia Beach, Va. He spent his childhood there, but summers were reserved for Camp Sequoyah near Weaverville in the North Carolina mountains. He also spent significant time at Nantahala Lake. The scenic area held a special place in his heart, and it is here that Walker sought to move when his first child was born.

“It’s a good life. It was a good place to raise your family,” Walker remembers thinking. He landed a job at Nantahala Village and soon was involved in the community as president of the Nantahala Gorge Association.

From there, Walker became involved with Swain County’s Tourism Development Authority and Chamber of Commerce. It was a natural fit, considering his position in the lodging industry, but Walker also saw the vast potential tourism held for the area.

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“I always thought (there was) the potential for tourism. That’s all we’ve ever had here was tourism. Tourism was something the area could grow on — there were no natural resources,” that would attract industry, Walker said. All of the area’s natural resources, like the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, were tourist-related.

Indeed, tourism is where the town turned when its major industries left. When Walker moved here, the Singer sewing machine plant and Tuckasegee Mills were still in operation; those businesses have long since shut their doors.

“When they left, this place had to find some place in life, and it turns out tourism is where it went to. The greatest thing is that you can’t outsource tourism, so it’s going to be here all the time,” Walker said.

Though Walker noticed the potential Bryson City had for attracting tourists years ago, it wasn’t until fairly recently that it was realized. Fifteen years ago, much of downtown sat empty; warehouses and hardware stores that used to occupy the area had gone out of business. Slowly, though, “the pieces of the puzzle,” came together, as Walker likes to put it.

“Whitewater rafting was bringing more and more people to the area. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad was coming to the area, even though they were booked in Dillsboro. A lot of things were going on,” that helped kick start the revitalization of downtown, Walker said. “All of this was timing. People took advantage of it.”

Today, Walker, who is manager of Fairfield Inn and Suites in Cherokee, is proud of what he sees in downtown Bryson City. So much so, in fact, that he and his wife purchased an old boarding house on Everett Street across from city hall and renovated it into a 4,400-square-foot apartment where he now lives.

“We wanted to renovate it to save it for the community,” Walker said.

Walker is aware that increased tourism, though beneficial in many ways, means an increasing strain on the town’s resources. That’s why he’s vowed to make water, sewer and parking priorities in his administration, and possibly look into a land-use plan for the town.

“I want controlled growth to the point where we have services and stuff to take care of people. We want a nice community, where people can have a good time and kids are safe. People still do not lock their car doors and houses. It’s still a good area to live in,” Walker said.

Additionally, Walker wants to see more businesses in town.

“I want to be able to offer certain things that we have to somewhere to get. I’d like to have more businesses to service the local end and the tourist,” he said. He also noted that he’ll make affordable housing a priority.

Of his decision to run for mayor after being in the area for 30 years, Walker said, “it’s just the right time and the right place.”

“I love the town and I’ve enjoyed the town and Swain County. This is my home, and I’m not going anywhere else. I love the people, and I’ve got really good friends here. I just want to make it more comfortable for everyone that lives in the county,” Walker said.

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