New TDA visitor center will leave Haywood Chamber with funding woes

Less than a year after opening a new visitor center in downtown Waynesville, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce learned last week that its funding for the site is on the chopping block by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

The county tourism agency plans to open its own visitor center downtown and end its subsidy for the one run by the chamber.

The tourism agency is better positioned to operate a one-stop shop for tourists looking for things to do and see in the county, according to TDA Director Lynn Collins.

“Our sole purpose in life is to market Harwood County as a destination,” Collins said.

It makes sense for the TDA, which is in charge of branding and marketing the county, to run its own visitor center for tourists to provide a seamless message rather than contract the role out to the chamber.

“This is a good time for us to take control of our program and tell our story the way we want to tell it,” Collins said.

The chamber received $30,000 from the TDA to run a visitor center. Losing that revenue will not be easy and could mean the loss of staff, according to CeCe Hipps, the Haywood chamber’s executive director.

“Anytime an organization gets that big of a budget cut, we will have to look at how we do our day-to-day operations,” Hipps said.

The chamber says it will not shut down its visitor center, however, despite the loss of funding. A visitor center is still central to the chamber’s mission, Hipps said.

“Chambers are considered a trusted and established source of information,” Hipps said. “Regardless of the outcome of this we will maintain our visibility and maintain our visitor center. Nothing will change for us from that aspect.”

The result: two visitor centers less than three blocks apart in downtown Waynesville.

The turn of events comes as the Tourism Development Authority grapples with budget shortfalls of its own. The TDA raises money with a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging, bringing in close to $1 million a year. That money is pumped back into tourism promotions, from national advertising campaigns to mini-grants for local festivals.

As tourism has dropped with the recession, however, the TDA has seen its budget shrink by more than $200,000 in three years. This year alone, the TDA has come up $115,000 short of what it anticipated, leaving the agency struggling to make mid-year budget cuts.

“We didn’t just wake up one morning and say ‘Let’s go take the chamber’s funding away from it.’ There is a quite a bit of planning and pros and cons and up and down that when into this,” said Ken Stahl, TDA finance chair.

However, the chamber learned only last week that its visitor center funding is in jeopardy with the start of the new fiscal year come July. Such short notice will make it hard to adjust, Hipps said.

Key members of the chamber board and TDA board met last week to discuss the issue. Ron Leatherwood, the incoming president of the chamber board, said the TDA might be willing to phase out the visitor center funding over two years rather than doing it all at once. That would certainly soften the blow, he said.

The visitor center funding is more than 10 percent of the chamber’s annual budget, and it will be a challenge to make up the difference, Leatherwood said.

But Leatherwood said he understands why the TDA, which is in the tourism business after all, wants its own visitor center. If they can serve the number of visitors they hope to — 40,000 a year — it will surely be a good thing for the county, Leatherwood said.

“Hopefully it will be successful for all of us. A rising tide lifts all boats,” Leatherwood said.


A full-service visitor center

The TDA envisions a full-service visitor center, where tourists will be awed by an endless list of things to do in Haywood County, from crafts to fly-fishing to motorcycle rides. Not to mention a clearinghouse for all the special events going on any given weekend, something that doesn’t exist now.

“We hope to achieve a little bit of synergism here,” said Stahl.

And since the TDA lives and breathes tourism, it can best disseminate that information, Collins said.

“We have a very good handle on what is going on in the county,” Collins said.

Collins also wants their visitor center to be open seven days a week, compared to the chamber’s visitor center, which is only open on weekdays.

The TDA is negotiating a lease to house the visitor center and its administrative offices in a storefront on Main Street across from Mast General store — in the thick of the downtown action. It’s a better spot for snagging foot traffic than the chamber’s location, Stahl said.

Stahl hopes a new visitor center will catch 40,000 visitors a year compared to the 6,000 seen at the chamber’s visitor center.

“When the foot traffic is in the thousands up there on Main Street, it is an opportunity for us to reach out and touch a lot more people than what we have been for essentially the same amount of money,” Stahl said.

The chamber’s visitor center is past the courthouse in a historic home a block beyond the main shopping district. To Hipps, the location is ideal: at the corner where Russ Avenue, a main corridor into downtown, feeds into Main Street.

The chamber just moved into the building last June. It had been without a permanent home for much of the past decade, bopping from one location to another every few years. A visible spot for the visitor center was the top consideration in the quest for a permanent site.

“That was our main driver. We wanted to have a gateway into the downtown area,” Hipps said.

The chamber’s physical quarters are impressive and inviting. The stately historic brick home has a wide front porch decked out in rocking chairs. The lobby has a grand double staircase and features include hardwood floors and black-and-white checked bathroom tiles. Its interior décor is appointed with comfy sofas and lush ferns. The front lawn is crowned by stately oaks with views down Main Street.

“We wanted something that would give people a really good first impression,” Hipps said.

The chamber made a sizeable investment when signing a three-year lease on the building.

Hipps said tourists quickly make themselves at home there.

“Finding the perfect home for a visitor center was so key. Had we known this a year ago we probably would have looked at other options,” Hipps said.


Move in the cards

Until now, the TDA has been holed up in an obscure county office building carrying out a mostly administrative role. Few in the county could tell you where the agency was headquartered, despite its very showy mission of broadcasting Haywood’s tourism accolades to the world.

Despite a sweetheart deal — the county charged the TDA only $250 a month in rent — the TDA had been contemplating a move to new offices for a couple of years.

But it was spurred recently into action by a massive reshuffling of county office space — one that might leave the TDA with no home at all.

Most of the occupants housed in the same office building as TDA are moving to an abandoned Wal-Mart being remodeled for various county departments. The project was motivated by the need to replace the antiquated quarters of the Department of Social Services but has led to musical chairs for other county offices as well.

The county hasn’t decided yet whether TDA can stay where it is, whether it might give the space to different county departments, or whether it will sell the building.

While it’s not certain TDA will get the boot, it was enough to get the TDA’s attention.

“They have not said definitively we have to move any certain time. Their exact words from the county manager were it would be prudent for you to start looking,” Collins said.

It seemed like a good time to pull the trigger on something they wanted to do anyway.

“We don’t want to wait until the music stops and not have a chair,” Stahl said.

If the TDA is going to fork out substantially more in rent, it will cut into its already tight budget. To make it work financially, the TDA will take visitor center funding away from the chamber to cover the rent, bringing visitor enter operations in-house in the process.

“If we are going to move we want to move into something that totally completes our mission,” said Alice Aumen, chair of the TDA board.

Part of that mission is to bring the TDA to the next level as an agency.

Since the TDA’s creation 25 years ago, it has funded visitor centers run by both the Haywood chamber and Maggie Valley chamber.

While it made sense for the TDA to outsource visitor center operations in its infancy — in the early days it had no staff of its own let alone an office — it has grown into a major marketing force for tourism and needs to take a leading role in serving tourists once they arrive.

There’s another advantage to running its own visitor center: to advance marketing research, Collins said. Currently, TDA staff responsible for marketing the county don’t interface directly with the traveling public on a daily basis. Collins wants to survey visitors and find out what brought them here, where they are from, how much they are spending, who’s in the traveling party, and what they like to do.

“It helps us get to know our visitors better. We can conduct all kinds of market research to build our marketing program appropriately,” Collins said. “If you don’t have research you are flying by the seat of your pants.”

The days of shotgun advertising is over, said Aumen.

“This is a huge opportunity for us to do research on who the actual visitor is,” Aumen said.

Plus, TDA can capture the email addresses of visitors, which are worth their weight in gold for direct marketing through social media like Facebook.

While the TDA is in the business of luring visitors to the county, there’s still an advantage to engaging those who are already here.

“Even though they are already here, we can get information in their hands that would make them want to extend their stay or come back for a visit at another point in the year,” Collins said.


Fulfilling a mission

Before moving in to its new office last year, the chamber invited the TDA to share the space. The two entities could run a joint visitor center and share overhead expenses, Hipps suggested.

Talk of co-locating the chamber and TDA have surfaced on and off over the years, but this marked the first formal invitation to the TDA to move in together.

“We wanted to continue and strengthen our partnership and to continue to work together and collaborate,” Hipps said.

Hipps said the two entities have the same common goal, namely “to promote Haywood County.”

It’s common for chambers of commerce and county tourism agencies to share offices and staff while maintaining separate budgets. It’s done in Asheville to the east and Jackson County to the west.

But co-locating with the chamber did not fit the TDA’s mission.

While tourism is the TDA’s only focus, the chamber recruits new businesses, promotes commerce, supports entrepreneurs and engages in economic development.

“A visitor center is not their primary mission,” Stahl said.

But Hipps said tourism is integral to the county’s economy, and thus integral to the chamber’s mission.

“Our model has always been everyone in this county is connected to tourism,” Hipps said. “We can’t dissect and separate the chamber from tourism.”

That said, the chamber’s visitor center does serve as a point of contact for people moving to Haywood County, buying a second home, relocating their business, starting a new business — all of whom may have started out as just a tourist at one time.

“We are so connected with the big picture that the overall economic impact is much greater than the numbers for foot traffic that comes through the door,” Hipps said. “Our business model is all inclusive.”

The chamber’s visitor center is critical a point of contact for business inquiries, said Leatherwood. You never know when a “lone eagle” will stroll into the visitor center, for example. That term refers to a mobile professional who can do their job online from anywhere and may be seeking a new place to move, Leatherwood said.


A county of many visitor centers

The visitor center run by the Haywood Chamber is one of four funded by the TDA.

“We are probably the only TDA in the state that funds four visitor centers,” Stahl said.

One in Maggie Valley run by the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce gets $30,000 a year from the TDA. The other two — one at the highway rest area in Balsam and one off the interstate in Canton — are staffed by the TDA at a cost of $25,000 each.

The Canton visitor center was opened only three years ago, but tourist traffic there has not panned out. A cinderblock car wash beside a gas station was converted into a visitor center.

Faced with a budget shortfall last spring, the TDA shut the Canton visitor center for six weeks. Traffic had fallen sharply anyway due to a rockslide that shut down I-40. But even once I-40 opened again, numbers remained low. In the fall, hours were scaled back, and in January it was shut completely. The TDA plans to turn it over to volunteers with the Canton merchant association.

The visitor centers in Maggie Valley and at Balsam draw higher numbers of visitors (see chart). Neither is on the chopping block for now.

The TDA will continue funding the visitor centers that perform better, but could not justify funding those that saw such a small number of visitors, Stahl said.

Hipps said the chamber is grateful for TDA support all these years and believes the two entities will continue to work together.

“We have a very successful business model here. TDA has been a part of that success by helping to fund that part of what we do,” Hipps said.

Maggie Valley tries ‘flowery’ marketing idea

Maggie Valley is in the midst of a makeover. The town is taking steps to spruce itself up, modernize and, just maybe, attract a few new visitors and investors.

Last month, the town’s aldermen voted unanimously to accept a set of aesthetic standards that proponents hope will change the face of the town, giving it a look dubbed ‘mountain vernacular’ that will nestle a little more naturally into its mountain home.

The standards will go into effect Jan. 16 for new buildings and property renovations. The changes have been over two years in the making.

Maggie Valley Planning Director Nathan Clark said the reaction in the community has been mostly positive. They were already moving towards the look the town finally decided on, anyway.

“A lot of the vision for this type of mountain vernacular style of design is kind of present all throughout the valley already,” Clark said. “A lot of people already have it in some way.”

While the town created committees to define what, exactly, entails “mountain vernacular,” it’s hard to craft a quick description that captures the look. It’s part rustic, part bungalow-esque, part down-home polish, and even the town’s own literature on the matter classes it as beyond definition.

“Mountain vernacular is not a style of architecture,” Clark told aldermen in a presentation at the meeting. “It cannot be defined in simple terms or achieved by following a certain set of strict design requirements. Mountain vernacular is as much of a process as it is an end product.”

He gave the Maggie Valley Police Department as a prime example of the style.

Clark maintains, though, that not having a set list of criteria to go by is actually a better way to approach design standards because it allows for consideration of every case on its own merits. He told the board that the idea was “ballparks, not bull’s-eyes.” They’ve got a design primer that will answer basic questions, but the larger questions will be settled by a review with the town’s planning department, a session with the newly-created appearance commission and a final look from the board of aldermen.

Overall, response to the new standards was positive. There was some vocal objection to such an intrusion by government into private-sector affairs, but Mayor Roger McElroy defended the measures as necessary for a town that desperately wants to see growth and renewal.

“If we’re going to have people come in here and spend substantial money building a place when they know that someone can come in and build something very inappropriate right next door, they’re not going to do it,” said McElroy.

And that’s what Maggie Valley has been searching for in earnest in its post-Ghost Town era: a way to get people interested and keep them that way.

The new aesthetic standards are only one front in Maggie’s battle against its own decay. Earlier this fall, the town and local business owners dropped thousands of daffodil and tulip bulbs into the frozen ground, hoping that when they spring up next spring, the waves of color undulating down Soco Road will entrance the droves of tourists that haven’t yet been snared by the town’s other charms.

Clayton Davis, long-time horticulture agent for Haywood County and 50-year valley resident, pitched the idea of year-round color to the aldermen a few months ago.

Here’s the idea: plant a variety of foolproof flowers that blossom in separate seasons throughout the town, the result being that, with a little money and a little effort, you get a town full of color all year long. And a built-in tourist attraction.

“The idea is to start in the spring with the daffodils blooming and the tulips to have a constant flow of color of either flowers or foliage,” explained Davis, who got the idea from a visit to Summerville, S.C., decades ago.

“Everybody planted azaleas, and in the month of April it was just gorgeous,” Davis said. “And i thought we could do something like that with color.”

The three- to five-year plan involves knockout roses, which bloom from early summer to the first frost, followed by nandina and holly to brighten up the winter months.

Davis said he’s  been “pleasantly surprised” by the keen interest from business owners who are happy to bury anything in their yards that will bring flocks of tourists their way.

Davis said he went for plants that are more or less one-time care species, sort-of a plant-and-forget campaign.

“We want plants that are what we call bulletproof,” Davis said, explaining that daffodils and tulips are some of the best species for the job.

“They grow wild in Europe,” David said, “ and I’ve seen them back at my old home place in Swain County where I lived as a boy where they were planted over 70 years ago. And even though the houses are gone and the trees are overgrown, they’re still growing there.

“Annuals have a definite place in the landscaping, but you have to plant them every year. But perennials, both bulbs and shrubs, if you plant them now, they’ll come back.”

And that’s the goal with both the plants and the planning standards: make Maggie Valley a place people want to visit and return to.

Planning Director Clark concedes that these tactics are quite the departure from the traditional way of doing things in the valley, but he believes it’s worth it to revitalize the flagging town.

“This is a very drastic change in the way things have been done in Maggie valley throughout history,” Clark said. “It’s time to re-assert ourselves and our place as a destination regionally.”

Two towns at a crossroads

For decades Maggie Valley and Dillsboro were two of the mountain’s most iconic tourist towns. Sadly, both relied heavily — too heavily — on a single cash-cow. When Ghost Town shut down in Maggie and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad pulled out of Dillsboro, both lost tens of thousands of visitors once delivered to their doorsteps. Both towns are now struggling to find new identities.

Who’s visiting the Smokies?

While conducting a research study a few years ago, tourism official David Huskins came across an Atlanta resident who thought the Blue Ridge Parkway meandered its way through Kentucky.

Another focus group participant said all he knew about the Smokies was what he saw in the movie “Deliverance,” which doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture of the region.

An African-American woman flipped through travel guides and said while Western North Carolina looked picturesque, she wouldn’t go.

“She said, ‘There’s no one in here that looks like me,’” said Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host, a travel promotion organization for the seven counties west of Asheville.

Researching tourists — both real and potential — sometimes amounts to a harsh reality check, according to Huskins. But it’s what he believes is necessary to greatly improve efforts to market Western North Carolina as a tourist destination.

“That’s the thing we’re lacking ... You want the research to drive your marketing decisions,” said Huskins. “Demographics, what people like, don’t like, we need to be doing that on an ongoing basis.”

Research can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, though, making it less feasible for tourism entities operating on tight budgets. The latest study on Western North Carolina scrutinized tourist demographics back in 2008.

Then, the average tourist to the North Carolina side of the Smokies was a 51-year-old Caucasian with a household income of $53,500.

Most visitors traveled without kids and came for the scenery, to relax and to hike. Predictably, the area was rated lowest by past visitors for “nightlife,” “cell phone reception” and “theme parks.”

Changing any of the latter three might assist in attracting younger visitors, but tourism officials are instead promoting ample opportunities to reconnect youth with the great outdoors.

With more and more kids glued to video games, the Internet and their iPods, fewer families are making their way to the Smokies for outdoor adventure.

Still, outdoor recreation and scenic beauty continue to drive millions of visitors to the region every summer and fall. The types of tourists attracted to WNC fluctuate in their numbers, but tourism remains a staple of the region’s economy.

A changing demographic

Decades ago, the bread and butter of summer tourism in WNC came from blue-collar workers employed at textile mills in North and South Carolina.

One factory after another would shut down for a week or two of summer vacation. Each week would bring a new batch of workers who had saved up all year for an annual vacation to the mountains with their families.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, the Carolinas began losing much of their traditional industries, and the mills began closing their doors for good.

With that came a major shift in the kind of tourists who frequented WNC.

“We lost that segment, that blue-collar worker,” said Mary Jane Ferguson, director of marketing for Cherokee. “It’s like a new generation now and new people.”

Driven by nostalgia, some loyal visitors continued returning to the Smokies, along with their kids and grandkids.

For decades, WNC enjoyed a high rate of repeat visitors, which has been both advantageous and problematic.

As the baby boomers devoted to WNC grow older, the target market begins to die out, literally. The goal now is to bring in new visitors who then will restart the cycle.

Capturing the attention of youth is important in keeping visitors coming back for more as they grow old.

“You’re not going to see a 70-year-old rafting down the Nantahala,” Huskins pointed out.

Older visitors concerned about saving up for retirement are also less likely to spend than younger visitors.

“They’re not going to spend money frivolously,” said Ferguson.

Gen Xers have started showing up heavily in the region, and they’ve already distinguished themselves from their predecessors.

“They’re more active; whereas a lot of folks previously had come for natural beauty and the sightseeing, just to rest and relax,” said Lynn Collins, director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

Gen Xers come to the Smokies for all kinds of outdoor recreation, whether it’s hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking or rafting.

Karen Wilmot, director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that she, too, was seeing more young, active tourists beginning to visit WNC.

According to Julie Spiro, director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association, many tourists there are outdoor enthusiasts, ranging from 25 to 45 in age. However, also in the mix are adventurous 50-somethings who come to hike, bike and tent camp.

Spiro said these older visitors are enjoying a renewal of their passion for the outdoors, something that had probably been put on hold as they juggled careers and kids.

Huskins agrees there are a sizeable number of middle-aged couples out mountain biking.

“What we are not seeing is kids on those trails, on those bicycles,” said Huskins.

Families heading elsewhere

Fewer families with young children are flocking to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for a chance to camp under the stars, according to Huskins.

Kids are not as attracted to the mountains, rivers, rocks and trees as their parents and grandparents were in their childhood.

It’s a trend that concerns Huskins and his colleagues.

“We are an outdoor mecca,” said Huskins. “We’re trying to market the region to get more families interested.”

Losing attractions like amusement park Ghost Town in the Sky and a zoo that had operated in Maggie Valley for decades also put a damper on family visitors.

Ghost Town brought in hundreds of thousands of visitors over the years. After filing for bankruptcy and being plagued by a landslide on top of that, the Western-theme amusement park remains closed for the time being.

“That eliminates a lot of families that would normally come here,” said Collins. “When you all of a sudden don’t have that available, it makes a huge difference in the mix of folks that do come into the area.”

Even if the park reopens, it must reinvent itself if it hopes to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors again, according to Huskins.

“If you’re in the tourism business, you have to reinvent yourself every day,” said Huskins. “It’s got to be more than a rollercoaster and a shoot-out on Main Street.”

Some areas are faring better than others in terms of family visitors, however.

Gem mining in Macon County and the Great Smoky Mountain Railroads in Swain both attract thousands of families to the region.

The Railroad opened a depot in Bryson City in the late 1980s, greatly stimulating the downtown area. Two years ago the railroad moved its administrative offices from Dillsboro to Bryson City and made that depot it headquarters, bringing even more traffic to the Swain County town. Wilmot, who grew up in Bryson City, recalls what the town looked like in the shoulder months before the railroad came along.

“Sidewalks were rolled up. We were gone until Memorial Day,” said Wilmot.

But with the specialty Polar Express train running each winter, Bryson City sees a total of 40,000 riders from November through December.

“That’s a great thing for our local economy in a time we previously had nothing,” said Wilmot.

Now, Bryson City businesses coordinate festivities to complement events at the Railroad. For example, the downtown trick or treat event, coordinated with the Great Pumpkin Patch Express train, draws 3,000 people in just three hours.

Tracking the trends

Changes in tourist demographics would likely seem minute to most lay people, but officials are maintaining watch and picking up on the trends.

Cherokee visitors tend to be more affluent than ever before. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is now marketing toward educated individuals with a household income of more than $75,000.

Cherokee is also focusing on promoting outdoor activities, which have always drawn tourists.

“We’ve always attracted people who enjoy the outdoors and a slower way of life, just being surrounded by beauty,” said Ferguson.

Meanwhile, Swain County has seen an influx of Horace Kephart scholars to visit the famous author’s grave. Bryson City has even come up with an annual celebration in honor of Kephart.

During tough economic times, Jackson County is especially highlighting its outdoor activities that don’t come with a charge.

The Jackson County Chamber is also promoting a free weekly concert series in Sylva this summer.

“Some of the best fun is free,” said Spiro.

With the recession limiting how far most people can afford to travel, Cashiers is seeing more families and young couples from the Atlanta area coming up for the weekend.

“People with money are not flying overseas,” said Sue Bumgarner, executive director of the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce. “They’re taking vacations closer to home.”

Cashiers promotes its outdoor offerings, but makes sure not to overwhelm potential visitors.

“We let them know you can come here and be as busy as you want or lazy as you want,” said Bumgarner.

Wilmot concurs, letting visitors know they can spend a lazy afternoon in Deep Creek or enjoy peaceful kayaking on Fontana Lake. If visitors would like to camp without the hassles, guides can do all the grunt work.

“You’re not dealing with a 50-pound pack and two small children,” said Wilmot. “They cook for you, clean up the site for you.”

WNC tourism trends


Maggie Valley business owners have seen an uptick in motorcycle enthusiasts with the opening of the Wheels through Time Museum.

Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House, says many more motorcyclists are rushing to the Smokies to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Dragon and other twisty roads.

More motorcycle rallies in Haywood have attracted bikers, but they’re not the kind of bikers most would expect.

O’Keefe said while convertibles were the go-to vehicle for the wealthy in the past, it’s now motorcycles that are the status symbols.

“We see doctors, lawyers, more upper-class people riding expensive bikes,” said David Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host, a regional tourism organization.

Moreover, motorcycles aren’t only for males. More females are riding their own bikes rather than taking a backseat.

Visitors who stay

With beautiful environs situated relatively close to major metropolitan areas, WNC has long attracted second- and third-homeowners from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and other Southeastern states.

Many of these part-time residents visit before buying. The second-home market especially spiked in the mid-1980s and continued to grow — until the recession stopped it in its tracks.

“This is the first recession that actually hit the luxury market,” said David Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host, a regional tourism organization. “Previously, they’ve been immune to that.”

Karen Wilmot, Swain County Chamber of Commerce director, testified to a surge of second-home buyers there in the past five years. When folks in Atlanta realize they can get to WNC in three hours, the area shoots up in popularity.

But the Swain Chamber doesn’t deliberately advertise the area as an ideal place for a second residence.

“We don’t really push it as come and live. We push it as come and stay,” said Wilmot.

Word of mouth is the best marketing tool by far, according to Wilmot.


The Smokies have witnessed a noticeable rise in foreign visitors in the last decade. Favorable currency rates and concentrated international marketing have brought more Germans and Brits to the region than ever before.

Many international tourists are flying into Washington, D.C., picking up the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, getting off in Cherokee, then flying back out from Atlanta.

More Scandinavian and Swedish tourists are beginning to join their German, English, Irish and Scottish counterparts in the Smokies.


After Maggie Valley and Waynesville were designated Mountain Heritage Trout Waters cities two years ago, more families are coming to the area to take kids fishing. The designation means anyone can pick up a three-day fishing license for just $5 and check out equipment at discounted prices.

Jackson County has also seen a rise in visitors after instituting a fly-fishing trail and ap two years ago. Visitors are coming from as far away as Texas and Montana for the first time.

Cherokee has also become a fly-fishing Mecca after opening catch-and-release sections on Raven Fork and the Oconaluftee River stocked with trophy trout.


Jackson County is seeing more tourists traveling with pets – so many that it has added a pet icon to its visitor guides to let tourists know which accommodations allow pets.

Julie Spiro, director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, said it may seem like a minor trend, but traveling with pets is becoming more important than ever to consumers.

Over in Macon County, the new Smoky Mountain Performing Arts Center in Franklin has led to a rise in traveling concert-goers. Visitors from outside WNC are now heading to Franklin to see their favorite musicians perform.

WNC’s economic stimulus lies in tourism

By David Huskins • Guest Columnist

Much of the talk nationally, as well as locally, has been centered on how to get our economy moving again. Policy proposals and local budgets are being measured by whether they will create jobs and stimulate spending.

While a contentious debate about the right policy rages in Washington, D.C., there may be an answer that is much less controversial, easier to implement and, best of all, could yield better results right here in Western North Carolina.

I’m talking about investing in our travel and tourism economy.

Many people don’t realize it, but the travel and tourism industry is one of our most important economic drivers.

Nationally, travel and tourism is responsible for $704 billion in direct spending, 7.4 million direct jobs, $186 billion in payroll and $111 billion in tax revenue. There are few industries that can compete with this kind of output.

The story applies locally. Here in Western North Carolina alone, travel and tourism in 2008 was responsible for 27,100 jobs, $509 million in payroll, $2.4 billion in expenditures, $99.7 million in local tax receipts and $119.3 million in state tax receipts (N.C. Department of Commerce).

Simply put, when people travel either for leisure or business, the economy grows, jobs are created, and tax coffers filled.

So how can we in WNC invest in this precious resource and leverage it to bring our economy back?

Here are some ideas:

Promote meetings and events. Meetings and conferences are essential to business productivity. We need to support them. Corporate meetings are a major driver of local jobs and a boost to local spending. When these meetings dry up our communities’ small businesses and workers suffer. So we need to do what we can to support the meetings and events industry, and encourage more businesses and associations to bring their meetings to Western North Carolina. We have some of the nation’s finest resort and convention hotels right here in our backyard.

Promote WNC as a regional tourist destination. Our 23-county region has everything a leisure traveler wants. With the nation’s two most visited national park units — Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway — and the the two highest recreation-user-day national forests (when snow skiing is excepted) — Pisgah and Nantahala — we’re an outdoor Mecca. Our natural resource base provides some of the most popular warm climate snow skiing, fishing, hunting, backcountry hiking and camping, bicycling and whitewater recreation areas in the nation.

We’re the home of the Cherokee, the most recognized Native American Indian Tribe in the world. Our craft, culture and heritage are significant, bringing us recognition by the U.S. Congress as the 23rd National Heritage Area — the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. And just last month, our Nantahala Gorge was chosen by the International Canoe Federation in Budapest, Hungary, as the site of the 2013 World Canoe Freelance Championship (the X Games of canoeing and kayaking). That event will attract 500 competitors from 50 countries and 100,000 spectators over 10 days, garnering WNC unparalleled international sports media coverage.

It’s time that we help our local tourism organizations understand the value of working more closely together and allocating some of their resources to promote collectively WNC as a true regional destination. It’s time that we help our local economic development organizations understand the value of the travel and tourism industry to our regional economy and how to engage it and support it in their various initiatives.

Attract international visitors. When people travel from other countries, they tend to stay longer and spend more when they are here — a windfall for our local retailers and other small businesses. A national communications and marketing program called the Travel Promotion Act was just passed by Congress, which will invest in marketing to these visitors. That is great news for us since tourism research studies indicate that European and Asian leisure travelers identify our Blue Ridge-Smoky Mountains-Cherokee region as their favored destination for a trip to America.

On a final note, we need to make sure our local, state and federal elected officials understand the value of travel and tourism to our regional economy. And we need to make sure they are recognized when they go to bat for travel and tourism. Our regional economy is beginning to turn around, but we need to continue to invest in the recovery.

The week of May 8-16 is National Travel and Tourism Week. It’s a great opportunity to let our elected officials know that we support and appreciate everything they are doing to get people moving again.

(David Huskins is the managing director of Smoky Mountain Host of N.C., a regional travel and tourism promotion and development organization created in 1987 for the state’s Smoky Mountains region of Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Clay, Cherokee, Graham and Swain counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

I-40 opens at last

Interstate 40, closed since October due to a massive rockslide, reopened with little fanfare on Sunday evening. For the people who depend on the road for their living, seeing the traffic flow again brought a sense of relief.

“We are thrilled to death,” said Mike Sorrells, owner of Sorrell’s Marathon and Auto Repair in Jonathan Creek. “You do not know how much that road means to your well-being until it’s not there.”

The work on I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge will continue through the summer as crews complete stabilization efforts, but with both eastbound lanes and one westbound lane open, Western North Carolina’s main transportation artery is back in business.

The total cost for the repair project, initially slated for completion in February, is estimated to be $12.9 million, and according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the federal government will cover nearly 100 percent of the cost.

For business owners like Sorrells, though, there is no way to recover what was lost. They watched with horror as the timetable for the road opening was pushed back due to poor weather conditions.

“It looked like this thing was going to get opened in February, and it was like a blow to the stomach when we learned it wouldn’t be until late April,” Sorrells said.

The economic effects of the I-40 rockslide have been a source of attention ever since the road was closed. In March, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced that it would hand out $1.4 million in loans to businesses affected by the slide, but the money was spread over the region from Asheville to Sevierville, Tenn.

Before the rockslide, about 19,000 vehicles a day traveled on the road, and almost half of them were trucks. Businesses that directly relied on the commercial traffic, like gas stations and hotels have been hardest hit by the closure.

Sorrells said he was forced to lay off weekend staff as his sales of gas and tires plummeted.

“We survived,” Sorrells said. “It was very difficult. You really saw the fall-off on the weekends.”

Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said the road reopened just in time for the summer tourism season.

“We’re thrilled obviously,” Collins said. “We have a lot of special events, beginning with this weekend, and hopefully we’ll have a good attendance with the road being opened.”

Still, the authority’s numbers have been bleak during the closure. Occupancy tax numbers were down 25 percent in the month of January from 2009 and 7 percent to date for the year. The numbers of walk-in visitors at the Canton Visitor Center were even more stark, only half of what they were a year ago through March.

Collins said the low numbers in January and February were likely the result of the weather, the economy, and the road closure.

Until the road reopened, eastbound travelers were detoured to I-26 on a route that added 53 miles and nearly an hour of driving time. The detour was not enough to stop skiers from visiting Cataloochee Ski Area, which enjoyed a successful winter season this year.

“We had a good season and the folks from Knoxville were able to get to us,” said Tammy Brown, Cataloochee’s marketing director. “We found that by offering differing routes, folks were able to deal with it.”

Brown attributed Cataloochee’s success to a great winter of natural snow and ideal conditions for snowmaking. The fact that the ski area did so well showed that the closure of I-40 was not a death sentence for tourism-based businesses on its own.

Traffic was also up in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which experienced a 5 percent increase in visitors over last year, primarily because U.S. 441 through the park offered an alternative route across the mountains.

While the interstate opened officially on Sunday, the work to stabilize the rockslide area will continue through the summer as crews complete the installation of rock bolts and anchor mesh at five separate sites. Both eastbound lanes are open, but one westbound will remain closed for about three miles and westbound truck traffic is restricted.

Haywood tourism leaders critical of state’s response to rockslide

State officials have not turned a blind eye to the economic pain caused by the rockslide in Western North Carolina, but Haywood Tourism Development Authority officials say their strategy is off the mark.

First off, the state’s tourism division is devoting $110,000 to a radio campaign in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas informing potential travelers they can still visit WNC despite the Interstate 40 closure.

The campaign was driven by a survey conducted by the state commerce department in the wake of the rockslide.

After polling 1,000 prospective travelers in Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., Knoxville, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, state officials concluded that misconceptions about the road closure reigned in Raleigh and Charlotte.

“Unfortunately, that’s not our markets for this time of year,” Collins said. “I know innkeepers are concerned about the Florida market. They would like to see additional advertising [there].”

During the holiday season, Collins said most travelers to Haywood County hail from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina.

According to the research, however, people in Raleigh and Charlotte seemed most likely to change their travel plans to avoid WNC, said Wit Tuttell, spokesman for the state Division of Tourism.

Tuttell said the state had to look at the entire region, not just Haywood County, even though the rockslide occured there.

“We have to represent everybody,” said Tuttell, adding that the state does help promote skiing in WNC, including at Cataloochee, with an annual $75,000 marketing campaign that targets the Southeast.

In partnership with the North Carolina Ski Association, the state funds television advertising in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.

From Thanksgiving until Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the radio campaign will direct listeners to the state Division of Tourism’s Web site for further information.

That Web site has already gotten 12,000 hits on its rockslide advisory page, which includes ample maps and directions.

“We know we’ve got people’s attention with that,” said Tuttell.

Meanwhile, Haywood’s TDA has dedicated $15,000 toward its own marketing campaign.

Part of that money helped the TDA buy Google Adwords for “Western North Carolina” and “rockslide” to direct Internet searchers to its Web site, which prominently displays multiple detours to the region.


Wrangling over signs

Haywood tourism officials are also miffed with the North Carolina Department of Transportation for not putting up more signs indicating that WNC is still open for business.

Collins said the TDA worked with N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, to coax the DOT to change its wording on electronic road signs. Signs initially warned drivers upon reaching Asheville that Interstate 40 was closed ahead and lured drivers to take a detour around WNC. New language was incorporated to list which exits were still open beyond Asheville

But since then, Collins has heard reports that that language isn’t consistently visible.

Reuben Moore, division operations engineer for DOT’s Division 14, which includes Haywood County, said the signs cycle through the messages, so drivers can miss part of it.

“If you miss the message the first time, you might get part of it the second time around,” said Moore. The letters are two feet tall, which allows people to begin reading the signs six seconds away.

Joel Setzer, division engineer for 10 western counties, said the DOT had to be careful not to direct truck traffic across the Great Smokies with the new signage.

“The DOT is trying to get out accurate information out that does not promote commercial and high volumes of traffic to U.S. 441 because that would be unsafe,” Setzer said.

Collins said even if the signs haven’t changed, she hopes the DOT will put up more signs that state WNC is open for business, ideally capturing the attention of drivers upon first entering the region as far out as Hendersonville on I-26 and Hickory on I-40.

Tourism turnaround set back by rockslide

After a slight increase in overnight visitors this fall following a dismal summer, Haywood County tourism officials are dreading November reports.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, at a town meeting in Maggie Valley last week.

Tourism businesses were dealt a double whammy in November, Collins said, with the Oct. 25 rockslide shutting down part of a major interstate near Tennessee and warmer weather preventing Cataloochee Ski Area from opening until the very end of November.

“Last year, Cataloochee opened Oct. 28,” said Collins. “A full month of skiers helped November last year.”

So far this fiscal year, Haywood has seen an overall 6 percent decline in overnight visitors.

Compared to last year, the county saw tourism revenues drop by 14 percent in July and 9 percent in August. But the TDA took in 4 percent more revenue in September and saw a 1 percent increase in October.

“The economy is easing a little bit,” said Ken Stahl, finance chairman of the TDA. “[But] it’s not where we’d like to see it.”

Stahl said the TDA has had several discussions with N.C. DOT on the rockslide cleanup process, which will take at least until March and possibly May to complete.

“We’re hoping that they’re going to be able to beat their estimates because of the economic impact,” said Stahl, adding that all sectors of the economy, not just tourism, have been impacted by the rockslide.

As rockslide cleanup trudges on, misleading detour signs plague tourism industry

The cost of repairing Interstate 40 after a massive rockslide in late October will now be borne by the federal government instead of the state.

Last week, the Federal Highway Administration agreed to use emergency relief funds to fully reimburse the state for the cleanup efforts, which have closed a 20-mile section of road near the Tennessee border that usually sees about 25,000 vehicles every day.

Latest estimates show the total repair bill would run between $7 and $9 million, according to North Carolina Department of Transportation spokesman Jerry Higgins.

Governor Beverly Perdue declared the I-40 rockslide a disaster shortly after the rockslide occurred, opening up doors to federal emergency funds, which help state and local governments pay for repairs due to floods, tornadoes, landslides and other natural disasters.

Next on Perdue’s wishlist are low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration for local businesses reeling from the impact of the road closure. Some Haywood County motels, restaurants, and gas stations that rely heavily on traffic from I-40 have seen a dramatic drop in business after the road closure at exit 20.

Haywood County tourism officials have said a false perception that the road closure has blocked off access to all of Western North Carolina has adversely affected the local economy.

The DOT has given contrasting reports on when it expects to reopen I-40. While Higgins reported that he expected the cleanup to take “at least three more months,” a press release issued by Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, stated DOT officials expect I-40 to remain closed for about another month.

So far, workers have blasted apart mammoth boulders and hauled away about 4,000 tons of debris to a nearby U.S. Forest Service site. Last week, a fleet of 15 trucks transported 200 loads of rock, which will be stockpiled for future road repairs.

As many as eight workers hand-carried between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of explosives up the slope so they could be set in the holes for detonation, according to the DOT.


A disastrous situation

If the Small Business Administration decides to open up economic injury loans to the region, struggling businesses in WNC could apply for assistance in covering everyday expenses, from keeping people on payroll to just keeping the lights on.

Despite feeling the most immediate impact from the rockslide, businesses from Haywood County would not be the only ones eligible for the loans. Businesses from all contiguous counties, including Buncombe, Henderson, Jackson, Madison, Swain and Transylvania counties, could claim SBA loans.

SBA has made it standard procedure to offer up loans to the affected county and all surrounding counties, according to Julia Jarema, spokeswoman for N.C. Emergency Management.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get the loans,” said Jarema. “They have to show a need.”

Some businesses in Haywood County have already demonstrated such a need for assistance.

Gina Shuler, who manages the Days Inn in Canton near I-40 , estimates that business there has dropped by more than 70 percent after the rockslide.

“It’s really taken a toll on everything,” said Shuler. “We’re probably going to have to start laying people off. It’s a really hard time.”

Shuler said the motel already faced a rough two years with the recession. Now, the motel is seeing nights when only two rooms out of forty are occupied.

“We’re just really going day by day,” said Shuler. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next week.”

The Midway Motel, near exit 20 where I-40 is blocked off, is another business that’s gravely suffering due to the rockslide.

Owner Brooke Gayne said last week that she did not have a single person in the motel.

Nevertheless, Gayne is reluctant to apply for the loans should they become available.

“That would be a last resort,” said Gayne. “Because you’d have to pay it back.”

Summer Smart, a waitress at nearby Haywood Cafe, said locals have kept the restaurant going, but she anticipated a big drop in the number of holiday travelers.

For now, most of the travelers who stop by are just looking for directions to places like Cherokee and Gatlinburg.

Smart has noticed the Pilot truck stop across the road is faring especially poorly.

“It’s really like a ghost town over there,” said Smart. “I feel sorry for them. All their business is truckers and travelers.”


Broadcasting the right message

Some members of the tourism and business community are working hard to publicize the fact that WNC is still accessible, hoping to stop travelers from steering away from the area after seeing I-40 closure signs.

Cece Hipps, executive director of Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, said DOT signs that inform travelers about the rockslide are correct but don’t do enough to dispel the perception that I-40 is closed to the mountains.

“You can’t really read the entire sign anyway,” said Hipps. “If you’re traveling 70 miles per hour, you see ‘I-40 closed’ only.”

But Hipps said the DOT understands the urgency of the matter and is probably doing its best.

“I don’t think we should point fingers at anyone,” said Hipps. “The problem is that our customers are not getting the message.”

Mary Jane Ferguson, director of marketing for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is considering the possibility of pooling resources with tourism agencies to put out a billboard that makes it loud and clear to travelers that WNC is still open for business.

But Ferguson said paying for that billboard would difficult since her budget is already strapped due to the recession.

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