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North Carolina side of park needs bigger, better visitors center

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has known it needed a new visitors center on the North Carolina side of the park since the early 1980s. Finally, it appears the nation’s most-visited national park is going to get one, and the communities surrounding the park should be glad the time has finally come.

More importantly, the two organization who are paying for the visitors center — The Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association — have once again proven that their partnership with the park pays big dividends for the park and surrounding communities.

The Oconaluftee Visitors Center is a busy place. Anyone who has been there trying to buy a book, get a camping permit or just to obtain information knows that during the high season from June to October it is, quite simply, a zoo. The building is too small and the parking area cramped. Thank goodness park employees are generally polite and helpful, or otherwise the experience would not sit well with visitors.

The building now serving as the visitors center was built in 1941 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was originally a ranger station that was never intended to serve huge crowds — about 350,000 per year, a number that would likely go up if the facility was better suited to its purpose — that now pass through its doors.

Park planners want to build a new, 6,492-square-foot building to replace the current 1,100-square-foot visitors center. If the plan is approved (a public information meeting will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m., July 19, Oconaluftee Visitor Cente), the new building will include a museum, exhibit space, an information desk, a bookstore and a gift sales area. If there is enough money, improvements may also be made to the parking area.

There’s little doubt about the need for the visitors center component of this plan, but we also hope the park service and citizens weigh in for a large museum and exhibit space. Right now thousands of historical objects from the park’s early days are warehoused in Oak Ridge, Tenn., because the park has no place to display them. This is a waste of important cultural resources. These items that tell an important part of the history of this park and this region need to be displayed to the public with the needed interpretive signage. Making this an important part of this new center will greatly enhance the visitor experience.

For the past decade or so, the North Carolina side of the park has been gaining popularity, as evidenced by visitation numbers. The area’s rapidly growing population is one reason, but other factors — like Harrah’s Casino and the re-introduction of elk to Cataloochee — have also contributed to increased park visitation.

We all benefit from this national park, whether we love the wilderness or work in a business that directly or indirectly relies on tourism for its success. It is the crowning jewel of the southern Appalachians, and we appreciate the park’s partners for taking on this important project.

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