Will Jackson ante up to bring tourist train back to Dillsboro?
Jackson County is one step closer to giving money to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to outfit the scenic rail line with a refurbished steam engine in hopes of getting a tourist boost in return.
County leaders are considering a $700,000 economic development grant to rehabilitate an old-time steam engine, build turntables and expand its maintenance yard.
Train officials say putting a steam engine online between Dillsboro and Bryson City would lead to increased ridership — and in turn more tourists coming to Jackson County.
Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody said the economic development promise of the train is a safe bet and a good investment for the county.
“I don’t think there’s anything else out there that can do this,” Cody said. “It’s a proven moneymaker.”
Swain leaders have already promised up to $700,000 to the railroad as well.
If Jackson County signs on, both counties would be part of the $1.4 million joint venture betting on more tourists.
A draft of an agreement between the railroad and Jackson County was drawn up and submitted to commissioners for review at a work session Monday. A public hearing on the funding is scheduled for April.
The negotiations between the railroad and the county have been going on for upwards of two years.
In exchange for the $700,000 grant, Jackson County wants the railroad to bring trips back to Dillsboro.
Several years ago, the train moved its headquarters to Bryson City from Dillsboro and soon shifted nearly all of its train departures to Bryson. As riders flocked to Bryson City, the change was said to have closed a number of Dillsboro shops that were dependent on train tourists.
As part of the deal, Jackson insisted that half the steam engine trips would have to depart from Dillsboro. Swain likewise insisted half the steam engine trips would depart from Bryson.
Jackson has also asked the tourist railroad to bring more trips back to Dillsboro immediately — and not wait two years from now when the steam engine is finished.
Commissioner Charles Elders said bringing more departures back to Dillsboro for this season could be a shot in the arm for the small, riverside town.
“Now it’s just like a ghost town,” Elders said. “I feel like this is something. Get this moving if we can by this season.”
However, it could take about two years to get the steam engine serviceable. Much of that work will be done in Dillsboro at the railroad’s maintenance yard.
Part of Jackson’s $700,000 grant would also pay for the expansion of the maintenance yard.
The full cost of the repairs aren’t known. If there’s enough money left over, it would go toward the construction of two turntables, used to turn the steam engines around once they reach the end of the track.
In exchange for the grant, the railroad would have to create six full time jobs within three years and stay operational for 15 years.
Dillsboro business owners and Dillsboro town leaders are backing the deal. Dillsboro has long been encouraging the county to help the struggling tourist-oriented village by helping the railroad.
Dillsboro Town Board Member David Gates urged commissioners at their most recent meeting Monday to get onboard.
“I hope our commissioners think about how important this is,” Gates said. “It’s a great thing for Jackson County.”
A recent study undertaken by Western Carolina University projected the arrangement could have a $25 million per year impact on the Jackson County, granted the steam engine is completed and operational.
However, not all commissioners fully support the measure. Commissioner Mark Jones said he approves the concept but would prefer if it were a low-interest loan rather than what resembles a grant. If the railroad fulfills the requirements of the loan, it does not have to repay the money.
But the most vocal opponent was Commissioner Vickie Green. She said the county should be hesitant to enter into a deal with a company whose owner has been part of at least one other failed business venture: the formerly bankrupt Ghost Town amusement park in Maggie Valley.
Green said she would like to see financial disclosure from the railroad company first. She also pondered whether or not the money would be better spent in other areas that may attract jobs that are better paying, non-seasonal and not subject to the changing whims of the tourism industry
Also, she asked, if a steam engine was such a lucrative endeavor, why couldn’t the company repay the loan?
“Is it worth $700,000 in Jackson County funds to make it happen?” she said.
Jackson has two assurances it will get what it pays for.
The train will put up its maintenance yard in Dillsboro worth $1 million as collateral. If the railroad fails to meet the terms of the deal — such as offering trips out of Dillsboro or creating jobs — it would have to repay the money or the county could seize the property.
Also, rather than give the railroad a $700,000 check, according to the agreement, the county will administer the funds and directly pay for the work done and materials purchased as invoices are sent in.