The quiet, early morning streets of Dillsboro seemed still asleep as the town board ambled in. They arrived one by one, easing in with casual conversation about health and grandchildren and how delicious Town Clerk Debbie Coffey’s homemade cheese Danish tasted.
But there was more on the table for discussion than bull and breakfast. Dillsboro’s leaders assembled for their specially called meeting to decide if the town should sell property recently handed over from Duke Energy.
“The county wants to make a river park with that property,” Dillsboro Mayor Mike Fitzgerald had explained the day before.
Over the summer, Duke turned over roughly 17 acres of property bordering the Tuckaseigee River near downtown Dillsboro. The property is located where the energy company previously operated a hydroelectric dam, and the handoff is tied to federally mandated relicensing requirements that require public utilities to give back to areas from which they profit.
Jackson County has long eyed the riverfront property. There are plans calling for a riverside park already on the shelf. During re-licensing discussions in 2009 the county commissioned Equinox Design Inc. to prepare a conceptual design for a park on the north and south sides of the river.
With Duke’s handoff of the property to Dillsboro this summer, the time has come for Jackson to make its bid.
“The mayor of Dillsboro contacted me in mid-September to advise that the town board had taken possession of the property and offered to sell the property to the county at market value,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said.
That’s a move the county had anticipated. Several months ago Jackson had the property appraised with just such an opportunity in mind.
On Sept. 15, commissioners took up the issue during a closed session. They approved a potential purchase price — the appraised value of $350,000 — and decided to make a formal offer.
“I have a contract right here,” Fitzgerald told his aldermen during their special meeting.
The mayor explained that, if the offer was accepted, there were no encumbrances on the funds. He laid out the county’s intentions, read a letter from Wooten — “obviously we view this property as a strategic piece of property for recreation purposes” — and called for a vote well before the cheese Danish was finished off.
The whole thing took about five minutes. Alderman David Gates agreed the decision was a no-brainer.
“Well, yeah, because we can’t afford to keep it, we can’t afford to do anything with it,” he said.
The board adjourned and dove back into friendly conversation. They hung around a bit longer and laughed about what the money might be spent on.
“Debbie’s going to get a new oven,” Fitzgerald joked following the board’s unanimous vote to accept the county’s $350,000 offer.
“We’re gonna have a gourmet kitchen,” Coffey laughed.
While both Jackson and Dillsboro have given nods of approval to the purchase, this is not quite a done deal yet. Commissioners will formally consider the matter during their Oct. 6 regular meeting; approval looks like a safe assumption.
“They had authorized an offer in executive session and Dillsboro accepted the offer so it is a done deal,” Wooten explained.
Once commissioners have given their formal approval, the county will develop a scope of work and then plans to reengage Equinox Design. The 2009 designs — which incorporate Duke’s dam into a river park — must be tweaked. Wooten expects the whole process to be moving forward by the end of October.
This is all good news to Barry Kennan. The Jackson resident — and former World Freestyle Kayak Champion and member of the U.S. National Slalom team — has been pushing for a whitewater park in Dillsboro for a while.
“Sounds like it’s going to happen,” Kennon said after the town accepted the county’s offer to purchase the Duke property for the purpose of a park.
Kennon has requested repeatedly that Dillsboro consider putting in a whitewater park. He contends the stretch of river rifling through town is perfect for the venture, calling it “the textbook spot to put a whitewater park.”
“The gradient’s already there,” Kennon said. “It’s a tailor-made spot.”
Plus, the kayak champion said, Dillsboro is located in a prime area insofar as participants in paddlesports are concerned.
“That’s basically like the paddling crossroads of the Southeast,” Kennon explained. “It’s right between Atlanta, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Asheville.”
The paddler points to parks in Colorado, where the concept of whitewater parks is nothing new.
“The Colorado parks, they’ve got so many of them,” Kennon said. “Like every little river town, they’ll have a park there.”
Those parks, he said, have long attracted not only paddlers but also people watching paddlers.
“These whitewater parks, they attract spectators. They’ll be like 10 spectators for every paddler in the water,” Kennon said. “There’s millions and millions of dollars being spent in Colorado at whitewater parks.”
Kennon won the World Freestyle Kayak competition in 2001 in Spain. Each year the event is held in a different location. Last year, it was held on Swain County’s Nantahala River.
Kennon entertains notions of the event returning to the region again someday. This time to Jackson County.
“We could have that event in Dillsboro,” the paddler said.
Dillsboro officials would like nothing more than to see visitors flock to the river. For years, the town benefited daily from visitors transported to its doorstep by the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, which now offers only limited trips to Dillsboro. Now, the quiet and quaint town boasts a burgeoning art community, but it could still use that extra something to really kick things into gear again.
Following the Friday morning vote over cheese Danish, Alderman Gates explained why he felt the sale worked for the town. Besides the money in the bank, he’s hoping the river park benefits Dillsboro exponentially.
“More tourism, bottom line,” Gates said, “for the county and for Dillsboro.”
Jackson finally gets its park
For years, Jackson County fought the removal of Duke Energy’s dam on the Tuckasegee River in Dillsboro. County officials argued that the dam had recreational benefits, historical meaning and green energy potential.
In 2009, as part of its effort to quash the removal of the dam, the county argued in court that the structure should be left in place and incorporated into a river park it had planned. Duke eventually won its fight with the county, dismantling the dam in 2010.
After a few years of environmental restoration, the power company handed off about 17 acres of riverfront property to the town of Dillsboro this summer as part of its federally mandated relicensing requirements. The town has chosen to sell the property to Jackson County, which still has intentions to place a park at the site, only without the dam.
The planned Dillsboro riverpark — or Dillsboro Heritage Park, as it was dubbed in 2009 — will feature river access points, boat ramps, walking paths and nature trails. It will have parking lots and playgrounds, pavilions and picnic tables.
The county’s plans call for a North River Park on one side of the river, with a South River Park on the other side. Since the time that the county initially had designs drawn up, Duke Energy has removed its dam and also built a river access point on the north side of the property. Those old plans will need to be dusted off and tweaked.
“I think the general concept will be the same,” said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.
Officials have set aside $100,000 — a portion of the amount. Duke paid Jackson in connection with its removal of the dam — to pay for the project.
Wooten said the county intends to reengage the plan’s author, Equinox Design, to update the plans.
“I think that they are ready to start as soon as we give them the go ahead,” said Wooten.
County commissioners are expected to give their formal approval to the sale during their Oct. 6 meeting. By the end of the month, they may be ready to consider a possible scope of work for Equinox.