Swain seals deal to bring steam engine to Great Smoky Mountain Railroad lines
Swain County leaders have pledged $700,000 to help the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad expand its already bustling operations in Bryson City.
Specifically, the monetary pledge will allow the privately run scenic railroad to rehabilitate an old steam engine to add to its all-diesel fleet. The steam engine would be major new selling point and further boost the tourism draw of the railroad in Swain County.
The sizeable grant would come entirely from tourism tax dollars and could also help build a turntable, a rotating track, needed to operate the steam engine.
“That is a big deal,” said County Commissioner Steve Moon.
The deal, which has been in negotiations for several months, was approved by commissioners during a special meeting last Friday. County Manager Kevin King emphasized that all of the money would come from the tourism tax on overnight lodging.
Specifically, the county will take out a low-interest $700,000 loan to provide the assistance. The county will pay itself back over 15 years with tourism tax dollars.
The county set the stage for financial assistance to the railroad earlier this year by increasing its tax on overnight lodging from 3 cents to 4 cents per dollar.
The room tax brought in $350,000 last year. The one-cent increase will amount to an additional $110,000 a year. A portion of that one-cent increase will cover the cost of the railroad project. A portion is also going to pay for renovation the historic courthouse into a museum and visitor center.
The county will actually own the steam engine and the turntable and lease them to the railroad, which will maintain them. Unlike a typical leasing agreement, the county will not receive a monthly fee but rather will benefit from the increased jobs and train ridership that a steam engine promises.
They county will also have the first right to purchase the railroad should the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad be sold.
“That is basically what we are getting out of it,” King said.
Although the railroad is privately owned, Swain County — Bryson City in particular — benefit from the crowds that it draws each year. The visitors ride the train but also shop in area stores, eat at area restaurants and fill local hotels, generating thousands, if not millions, of dollars in tourism revenue that benefits the county as a whole.
“I think the train is very important to this area, this region,” Moon said. “If the train left this area, it would be a bad thing.”
The steam engine is estimated to increase railroad ridership by 15 or 20 percent, equaling between 27,000 and 36,000 addition visitors a year.
“That’s huge,” said Al Harper, the owner of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. “To get 20,000 riders is literally $1 million of business.”
Profits made from the steam engine will be reinvested in the railroad to build a second steam engine, Harper said.
According to Harper, Swain County was the one who approached him with a financial aid package for the train.
“I am most impressed,” Harper said. “I have never had anybody reach out like that with a good concept.”
The engine being refurbished is the American-made Steam Engine #1702, which was built in the 1940s and once transported travelers throughout Western North Carolina. In fact, King said his grandmother remembers traveling to Asheville on that very train.
Jackson a day late and dollar short
Before the deal with Swain was even on the table, Harper had been in communication with Jackson County about a similar financial incentive to restore a steam engine and base it out of Dillsboro. Negotiations never advanced beyond informal talks, however.
For years, the train was headquartered in Dillsboro but moved to Bryson City in 2005, and ever since, Dillsboro has wanted it back — leading to an occasionally strained relationship between Jackson and Swain counties.
At one point last January, Dillsboro officials approached Swain commissioners about possibly partnering on a grant for the railroad. Jackson County lost its seat at the table, however, after getting mired down in a political dispute among tourism interests over whether to increase the county’s room tax rate and how to restructure its tourism agency.
So Swain ultimately pulled the deal off on its own. All is not lost for Dillsboro, however. The grant from Swain only requires half of the steam engine’s trips to originate in Bryson City — which means some could originate from Dillsboro. The depot in Dillsboro still exists, although is rarely in use.
“We are still interested in trying to see if there is a way to return the steam engine into Dillsboro,” said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.
Wooten added that the addition of the steam engine will benefit the region and noted that train will continue to bring visitors from Bryson City to Dillsboro for lay-overs, even if the trips don’t originate there.
Dillsboro town board member David Gates, who led the effort to bring the steam engine to Dillsboro, was surprisingly supportive of the agreement between the railroad and Swain County.
“Dillsboro is 100 percent behind the project,” Gates said. “The only thing I can say is, it’s a wonderful opportunity for Jackson County and Swain County.”
He said it was generous of Swain not to demand that all steam engine trips originate in Bryson City.
“I highly respect Swain County only wanting 50 percent. That is very neighborly,” Gates said.
The details are not final, but Harper said he hopes the steam engine will run once a day, five days a week. And, given the rarity of steam engines nowadays, the railroad might charge a premium for rides, though how much more is unknown.
Until the steam engine is up and running, which Harper estimates will take 18 to 24 months, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad will offer short rides on a smaller steam engine that was operating during last weekend’s Railfest in Bryson City.
Although the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad will definitely have a steam engine running up and down its tracks, whether the turntables will be constructed is still up in the air. Steam trains cannot move in reverse like the current diesel trains that travel along that line so turntables are needed to get the engine pointed in the right direction.
“The turntable itself will be quite an attraction,” said Commissioner Robert White.
However, if the railroad decides to forgo the turntables, it could simply attach a diesel engine to the caboose. The diesel engine would pull the train back to its starting point.
Sealing the deal
Swain County has included several stipulations as part of a $700,000 deal to help the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad put a steam engine in service in Bryson City. Here’s what the county is requiring in exchange for the financial assistance to the scenic railroad.
• The steam engine must be up and running within 36 months.
• All the funds will go toward rehabilitating the steam engine, and any leftover money will help pay for the construction of turntables.
• The railroad must create six new full-time jobs and keep them for at least 15 years. It currently employs about 100 to 150 people.
• Trips from steam engine must run out of Bryson City at least 50 percent of the time for 15 years.
If the railroad fails to meet any of those terms, it will be required to pay back at least a portion of the grant. Each year, as long as the terms are met, Swain County will forgive $40,000 of the grant.