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Smokies landslide could deal crushing blow to tourism if road repairs drag on

fr landslideA rain-induced landslide in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park left a gaping hole in U.S. 441, but its impact could leave a lot bigger hole in the local economy if park officials are not able to fix the road in time to save at least part of the tourist season.

Repairs could be done by mid-May to early June at the earliest, according to an estimated construction timeline released by the park service this week. The cost is anywhere between $3 million and $7 million.

About 200 feet of the road was taken out by the slide leaving a deep chasm in its wake, as if a draw bridge had been blown up.

“My first reaction was it’s a big hole,” said N.C. Senator Jim Davis, R-Franklin, after viewing the slide site this week. “That’s going to really hurt tourism in the district.”

The landslide severed the main artery through the Smokies between Tennessee and North Carolina and could be a blow to tourism, specifically in Cherokee, if it isn’t reopened soon.

“We have got to get that road open in very short order,” said U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers. “We have to push to make sure this gets on the fast track.”

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Actual reconstruction is expected to start in February, but debris removal and slope stabilization began this week.

An entourage of more than 50 local, state, tribal and federal officials visited the site of the landslide Monday. The group included state and federal highway agencies, Cherokee tribal leaders, state legislators, Congressmen and county commissioners from neighboring communities.

Tribal government and lawmakers are pushing the park to streamline the reconstruction process — and perhaps even create a road bypass to get around the damaged road section in the meantime.

Meadows is concerned about the regulatory hoops that could delay repairs, from national park environmental policies to the bidding process for construction contracts.

“We have to make sure we get people actually working on it and not just planning work on it,” Meadows said.

If past landslides are any indication, businesses in and round Cherokee will not walk away unharmed. When a major rockslide closed down Interstate 40 in Haywood County in 2009, it effectively cut off Western North Carolina to visitors traveling into the state from Tennessee for six months. Tourism-dependent businesses throughout the region saw a sharp decline in patronage.

“It was pretty significant. When a gateway is affected like that, there are the adverse consequences,” said Lumpy Lambert, assistant general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort. “It is in everyone’s best interest to get the road back opened.”

It is currently unclear how much revenue Harrah’s could lose as a result of the landslide. But, casino executives will work with tribal leaders to encourage people in Tennessee to take extra time and drive down Interstate 40 to visit Harrah’s, while the usual route through the park is closed, Lambert said.

While Cherokee is in the shadow of the Smokies, Swain, Jackson and Haywood counties could feel the impacts of the road closure as well.

Swain County attracts many outdoor tourists, from kayakers to hikers to sightseers. So, if spring comes and goes and the road is not fixed, “that is a pretty huge impact for us,” said Swain County Economic Development Director Ken Mills.

Even if Swain County only attracts a small percent of the millions of motorists traveling U.S. 441 through the park every summer, the county could miss out on thousands of visitors coming to shop in Bryson City, ride the Great Smoky Mountain railroad or drive through the Nantahala Gorge, Mills estimated. “100,000 people is a pretty big site impact,” he said. “That would be terrific if they could have it fixed before the season.”

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