Jackson tourism board offers tepid yet symbolic support of scenic railroad venture
The Jackson County Tourism Development Authority is the latest voice to enter the fray as the county ponders a $700,000 grant to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in exchange for the promise of more tourists.
Critics try to derail train stimulus in Jackson
The great Dillsboro train debate rolled on in Jackson County Monday with a public hearing this week on whether the county should give the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad $700,000 in exchange for the promise of more riders and tourists.
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.
Most Bryson City business owners OK with county financing train improvements
Most Everett Street business owners support Swain County’s pending investment in the privately owned Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, but some have questions about the mechanics of exactly how the deal will work.
Business owners lobby for train at every turn
Since the headquarters of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad moved from Dillsboro to Bryson City in 2008, the little picturesque tourist village in Jackson County has been waiting for its gravy train to return.
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.
Cherokee hopes to broker tourist train deal with Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
The principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will met with the owner of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad this week to discuss the possibility of expanding the scenic tourist railway to Cherokee.
Chief Michell Hicks publicly broached the idea at a joint meeting of Cherokee tribal council and the Jackson County commissioners on last week. Hicks said little more beyond expressing an interest in bringing the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad to Cherokee.
Dillsboro hopes to broker funding deal for tourist railroad
Swain County has now been targeted as part of a regional effort to drum up financial support for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s steam engine dreams.
Dillsboro officials are leading the charge, already courting Jackson County to make loans or grants for the railroad, and is now asking Swain County to participate as well.
Two members of the Dillsboro town board, David Gates and Tim Parris, addressed the Swain County commissioners last week to discuss the possibility of joining forces to either loan money or pony up cash to help the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad expand its operations.
Specifically, the tourist railroad wants to transport a 1913 Swedish steam engine from Maine to Western North Carolina and build two engine turntables necessary for its operation.
“It would probably be one of only ones in America,” Gates said. The railway has applied to Jackson County for a loan, a grant or both to help make the project a reality.
Steam engines are a rarity, and their antiquity is enough to draw new visitors to the railway.
“This could change Western North Carolina,” Gates said. “It could be probably the second largest tourist attraction outside Biltmore.”
In order for the project to work, the railroad would need a turntable in Dillsboro and one in Bryson City, where the steam engine could be turned around. Currently, the tourist train based out of Bryson City simply goes in reverse when reaching the end of its trip in order to return to the depot. But steam engines cannot move in reverse like the diesel engine that currently runs on the railroad.
Each year, 180,000 people ride the privately owned Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and the new steam engine will increase business by 15 or 20 percent, said Al Harper, owner of the railroad.
“Any steam engine will draw attention,” he said. “There just aren’t a lot of steam engines around anymore.”
And, the turntables themselves would be a big draw for visitors, especially if they include a viewing walkway where spectators can watch the engine being rotated.
The turntables as well as the creation of a walkway surrounding the mechanisms would cost about $600,000 total, plus about $450,000 to move the steam engine and railcars from Maine. It is unclear exactly how much the railroad would put up itself versus how much it is asking for.
A slice of the pie
While Swain and Jackson counties may be amenable to helping the railroad, as talks continue they may bump heads over a fairly significant detail. Both counties would like the steam engine based in their hometown as a condition of putting up money.
“I am very much in favor of the steam engine, and I’m in favor of the turntables,” said Robert White, a Swain County commissioner. “It’s unique.”
However, White would prefer that rides on the new engine originate from Bryson City.
“As far as I’m concerned, the steam engine should come out of Bryson City,” White said. “That is going to be a decision made by Mr. Harper.”
White added that the county is willing to do anything it can to help the railroad as long as it benefits Swain County.
Meanwhile, Jackson County has been clear that is wants the steam engine based out of Dillsboro for at least five years.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said the county would insist on that in writing as a condition in of any loan or grant the county made.
“We wanted to make sure number one that the train was going to operate mainly out of Dillsboro,” he said.
Harper said that Bryson City would remain the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s center of business but that Dillsboro would become the center of operations for the steam engine. This would give both towns a slice of the railway’s revenues.
Swain County commissioners suggested that a meeting between the railroad and leaders in Jackson and Swain counties to iron out the details.
“Everybody wants to see the jobs come in. Everybody wants to see the trains come in,” said David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner.
A talk will not take place for at least another few weeks because several key officials will be on vacation.
“We need a good joint cooperation,” Monteith said.
Talks between Dillsboro and the railroad were put on hold before Christmas because of a problem in Colorado, home to one of Harper’s other railroads.
Gates has spearheaded the negotiations between the Town of Dillsboro and the railroad.
Harper and Dillsboro officials have tossed around various numbers for nearly a year, but it is unknown how much, if anything, Jackson County will chip in to help the railroad.
“That is kind of a wide open thing,” Gates said, declining to list a number until one is presented to the town or county in writing.
Harper said he is reviewing his original plans and looking for ways “to get the cost down.” One option would be to sell the eight passengers cars that he purchased along with the steam train and only transport the engine to Western North Carolina, he said.
“I really don’t need more rail cars,” Harper said.
Moving the steam engine train from Maine will cost about $450,000 on top of the $600,000 for turntables, but no one was willing to say how much the total project will cost.
“We don’t have a final idea of what funds are available,” Harper said.
However, Harper did say at one point he could pick up half the tab of moving the train if Jackson County paid the other half.
Meanwhile, Gates is hoping that Dillsboro to help the railroad land a grant for up to $200,000 in Golden Leaf Foundation to help pay for the turntables.
However, more details must be settled before the town can submit a funding application.
“We can’t apply for a Golden Leaf grant because we’re not ready to,” Gates said.
The town needs the support of Swain and Jackson counties as well as Bryson City if it wants to move forward with the project.
The train used to run from Dillsboro to Bryson City and beyond, but in 2005, the railroad moved its base of operations to Bryson City.
“(In the past) There hasn’t been the cooperation with Dillsboro,” Harper said. “There were some feelings for a while that Dillsboro did not care about the railroad.”
The railroad is a boon for whichever town it originates from. People riding the train shop in the town’s stores and eat at its restaurants both before and after their ride. While those stops along the tracks such as Dillsboro also benefit, the economic ramifications are considerably less because visitors only have a 90-minute layover in the town.
“We need something to get ‘em to stop here,” said Tim Parris, an alderman from Dillsboro.
When the railroad shifted its headquarters to Bryson City, Dillsboro suffered as tourism declined. The steam engine would bring those visitors back to Dillsboro.
The town indirectly lost about 44 jobs as a result of the move, Gates said.
The railroad has said it will hire 15 people to run its operations out of Dillsboro, but the return could create more jobs at local shops and restaurants, Gates said.
Polar Express now boarding in Bryson
In 1985, Chris Van Allsburg wrote The Polar Express, a story of a magical train ride on Christmas Eve. The train takes a young boy to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa Claus. “The Polar Express,” published by Houghton Mifflin Company, has become a contemporary holiday classic, with over 6 million copies sold worldwide. In 2004 Warner Bros. Entertainment reunited the Academy Award-winning team of Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis in an inspiring animated version.
That same year Great Smoky Mountain Railroad began operating The Polar Express. More than 30,000 passengers rode The Polar Express with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in 2010.
The one-hour round-trip excursion comes to life as the train departs the Bryson City depot for a journey through the quiet wilderness for a special visit at the North Pole. Set to the sounds of the motion picture soundtrack, guests on board will enjoy warm cocoa and a treat while listening and reading along with the magical story. Santa will board the train, greeting each child and presenting them with a special gift just like in the story — their own silver sleigh bell. Christmas carols will be sung as the train returns to the depot.
The Polar Express operates through Dec. 24. Ticket prices begin at $39 for adults and $26 for children ages 2-12. Children under 2 years old ride complimentary. For more information and reservations please call 800.872.4681 or visit us online at www.GSMR.com. Premium rates apply to Nov. 25-27, Dec. 17-23 and all Saturday trains.
Crown Class ticket prices are $49 for Adults, $36 for children 2-12 and $10 for less than two years. First Class seating upgrades are available. Each guest will receive a deluxe serving of warm cocoa in a souvenir Polar Express mug and other treats in addition to the standard offerings. Upgrade to First Class at $59 for adults and $41 for children. Children under two years old are $15.
There will also be a Polar Express Christmas Eve Limited. Each guest will receive a special Christmas souvenir. Adult ticket prices are $51 and children 2-12 are $37. First-class seating upgrades are also available. Adult ticket prices are $72, children 2-12 are $50 and $20 for less than two years.
Smoky Mountain Trains Museum admission is included with all train excursion tickets. Without train excursion admission is $9 for adults and $5 for children.
Railroad wants money, county wants assurances
Jackson County is nowhere close to cementing a deal with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — one that would offer financial incentives in exchange for basing a steam engine tourist train in Dillsboro.
“It is far from a done deal,” said County Manager Chuck Wooten.
The county and the train have yet to agree on key factors.
The heart of the matter is a restored 1913 steam engine and passenger cars the railroad would like to put in service. But there’s a problem. The train is in Maine, and moving it here would cost $430,000, the railroad’s owner Al Harper estimates.
Harper wants the county to chip in half the cost of moving the train, as well as help secure an outside grant to build a turntable and a standing commitment to help with advertising costs.
Discussions have been informal and intermittent since last winter. The deal is primarily being brokered by a Dillsboro business owner and town board member, David Gates, who is acting as a de facto intermediary between Harper and county officials.
Gates recently drew up a draft contract and passed it around to the various parties. Harper lives out of state, but came to town for the train festival in Bryson City in late September. Gates took him a copy — and Harper promptly signed it.
The draft is not a version the county would endorse right now, however, and Wooten was flummoxed as to why Harper would have signed it prematurely.
There’s a key component missing, from the county’s perspective. Jackson County wants a written guarantee the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro for at least five years — not Bryson City, where the rest of its trains depart from.
“We want it to originate in Dillsboro, turn around in Bryson City and run back to Dillsboro,” Wooten said.
Shops would benefit more if people boarded and disembarked in Dillsboro, rather than merely rolling into town for a 90-minute layover before loading back up and heading out.
The trip from Bryson City to Dillsboro and back lasts four hours total, including the layover. Tickets start at $49 for adults and $29 for children age 2 to 12.
Dillsboro was once the main depot for the train, but the headquarters were moved to Bryson City in 2005. Then in 2008, the train yanked service to Dillsboro completely before partially restoring it the following year.
“When the train left, they lost a lot of traffic,” Wooten said of Dillsboro merchants.
County leaders are skittish that could happen again and want an assurance built into the contract. To pass muster with the county, the contract would have to require the train to keep the steam engine based in Dillsboro for five years. If it is moved elsewhere, the railroad would have to pay back a portion of the county’s grant, Wooten said.
Ideally, the train would promise to run a certain number of trips — such as two a day during summer and fall, and once a day during winter. But the county can’t expect the railroad to make such a commitment not knowing what the demand will be.
The draft contract circulated by Dillsboro stipulated that operations of the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro. But it also stated that “only the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad will have complete authority as it relates to all scheduling and operations of the train set originating out of Dillsboro.”
Such a disclaimer could make enforcement difficult if the railroad ever broke the promise.
Wooten also said if a deal was ever agreed on, the county would shy away from writing a check directly to the railroad. Instead, the county would want an invoice from the company involved in moving the steam engine and would pay it directly.
A must-have for the train to bring a steam engine to Dillsboro is a turntable, a piece of track that can be spun around to get the engine pointed back the right way when it reaches the end of the line.
The train apparently can’t afford the $200,000 to build one. The tiny town of Dillsboro can’t either. But the town will apply for a grant to cover the cost. A lot is riding on the outcome of that grant.
“No turntable, no steam engine,” Wooten said. “That would be a deal killer.”
The train currently runs on diesel engines. When the engine reaches the end of the line on excursions, it goes in reverse until it gets back to the depot in Bryson City.
Steam engines can’t go in reverse for long distances, however, making the turntable critical. The steam engine would run from Dillsboro to Bryson City, so another turntable would have to be installed there.
A turntable in Bryson City has been discussed for years. In 2005, the train got a $7.5 million low-interest loan from the Federal Railroad Administration, in part to construct turntables in Bryson City and Dillsboro. “How many years ago was that and where is the turntable?” asked Hanneke Ware, an inn owner in Jackson County who doesn’t think the county should give the railroad a grant. Wooten said the train apparently purchased the turntables but never installed them.
A portion of that loan was also for repairs to the track. But the majority was used to restructure existing debt that had a higher interest rate.
That existing debt and federal loan is one reason the railroad wants grants — not more loans — to move the steam engine and for the turntable. Wooten was told by the railroad that it lacked the collateral to take on additional debt right now.
The train has also asked for money for advertising from the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority — tapping into the pot of money raised from a tax on overnight lodging in the county. The train initially asked for $150,000 a year, but has since revised the request to an unspecified amount of advertising on the train’s behalf, specifically for marketing the steam engine service from Dillsboro.