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New leaders to forge future for Dillsboro with or without railroad

Faced with a collapsing tourism marketplace caused by a national recession and the pullout of its featured attraction — the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad –– Dillsboro’s voters elected a new leadership team to steer the town towards an uncertain future.

David Gates, one of the winning candidates, wants the tourist railroad to resume operations in Dillsboro.

“I would like to work real hard to re-establish our relationship with the railroad and try to get them back into Dillsboro. It was our number one draw, and it was a win-win situation,” Gates said.

All five positions on the town board and its mayor’s seat were up for grabs during Tuesday’s election with eight challengers and only one incumbent vying for the spots.

While attracting tourism and increasing its revenue base are the most pressing local issues, Dillsboro has also been at the center of one of Western Carolina’s most contentious environmental fights.

Jackson County is battling Duke Energy in federal court to prevent the Fortune 500 company from tearing down the historic Dillsboro Dam. Depending on who wins the court case, the dam could be taken down by Duke or turned over to the county to be included in a riverfront park development.

Going into the election, most of the candidates said attracting tourism and re-building the town’s economic base were their focus, and, while the dam fight was close to their hearts, its outcome was out of their hands as a result of a stakeholder settlement agreement signed years ago.

The mayoral race pitted local business owners Teresa Dowd and Michael Fitzgerald against one another. Fitzgerald –– who has served as the vice mayor for the past four years –– won election with nearly 75 percent of the vote.

Fitzgerald said a key component in planning for the town’s future will be expanding and formalizing its relationship with Western Carolina University, which is helping the town create a long-term vision and brainstorm on how to boost a local economy slammed by the recession and the train’s departure.

“We don’t have a formal arrangement but we will have someone working with their departmental liaison to look at all the possibilities,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said it was important to harness the university’s resources and ideas before determining the best way forward for the town.

“If a business person were going to open in our town it would be good to see what kind of businesses are likely to succeed beforehand,” Fitzgerald said.

Jimmy Cabe, the only incumbent to run for re-election to the town board, was the leading vote-getter in the race.

Cabe also emphasized the importance of pursuing a partnership with WCU that would benefit the town’s merchants and its residents.

“I’m kind of looking at the partnership with Western benefiting the whole town, not just the merchants,” Cabe said, adding that he hoped the college would help the town develop its use of alternative energy production.


Mayor, 4-year term

Michael Fitzgerald    53

Teresa Dowd    16


Town board

Seats up for election:    5

Total seats on board:    5

Jimmy Cabe (I)    57

Tim Parris    56

David Gates    51

K David Jones    50

Joseph Riddle    32

Walter Cook    25

Emma Wertenberger    22

TJ Walker    18

Charles Wise    18

Registered voters:    175

Voter turnout:    26%

Fee charged to overseas visitors would fund tourism marketing abroad

A bill is moving through Congress that could help boost the local economy and create jobs by drawing international tourists to Western North Carolina.

The legislation would charge overseas visitors a $10 fee. The revenue would be used to market the United States as a travel destination internationally. The promotion would be carried out by a nonprofit created for the purpose.

The bill comes as welcome news to Karen Wilmot, executive director of Swain County’s Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s very cost-prohibitive for us to focus a great deal of attention abroad,” said Wilmot. “I look forward to the initiative. It’s an untapped market, and that’s what we’re all looking for.”

Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, cosponsored the Tourism Promotion Act. It passed the House overwhelmingly. A similar bill passed in the Senate, and the two versions are currently being reconciled.

“International travelers will provide a much-needed economic jolt to the U.S. economy,” said Shuler.

The fee would only apply to visitors who do not need a visa to enter the U.S., including those from Australia, New Zealand, and most of Europe.

Most local entities concerned with tourism rely on the N.C. Division of Tourism to go after international tourists. The state agency recruited two groups of travel writers from the U.K. and Germany in the past year to visit Western North Carolina.

According to Wilmot, the German group thoroughly enjoyed visiting Cherokee and riding motorcycles through area roads.

In Wilmot’s experience, many international visitors who come to WNC hail from the U.K., Germany and Japan, all countries that would be affected by the new legislation.

Wilmot said these travelers are drawn to the Southern Appalachian culture, Cherokee heritage and the scenery.

“The natural beauty would speak to anyone no matter what nationality,” said Wilmot.

In addition, Western North Carolina has many small towns with a “lost Americana feel,” said Wilmot.

Ashley Rice, who handles marketing for the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said there’s no money in their advertising budget going overseas right now. But the market clearly holds potential, she said.

Rice said the touring group from the U.K. enjoyed golf, fly-fishing, and hiking in the area.

“The feel of the mountains does remind them of home,” said Rice.

Visiting the Appalachians is less expensive than many U.S. destinations, Rice said.

According to Rice, there is a “fair amount” of overseas travelers headed to local visitor’s centers. For example, a few from South Africa and Italy recently visited one in Canton.

While the United States has no shortage of travel destinations, Shuler said the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the country and is sure to benefit from the bill.

Shuler said even if a few thousand more visitors come to the area annually for the next four years, word of mouth and repeat business would help generate an increase in revenues.

The act is designed to attract up to 1.6 million new international visitors to the United States, creating nearly 40,000 jobs in the first year.

While many other foreign governments promote their countries abroad, this would be the U.S. government’s first foray into this type of marketing venture.

It is not clear yet how the nonprofit would market specific areas of the U.S., like Western North Carolina.

For now, North Carolina lags far behind other states in attracting international tourists, with 355,000 visitors from abroad in 2008. It is the 17th most visited state in the country, while New York, California, Florida, Nevada, and Hawaii comprise the top five.

WNC juggles perceptions and realities of rockslide blockade

The main message that local and state authorities are frenetically broadcasting to the world is that Western North Carolina is still open for business even though a major rockslide will likely shut down a portion of Interstate 40 near the Tennessee border for at least four months.

Governor Beverly Perdue echoed that message last Wednesday after declaring the rockslide an emergency, thereby qualifying the state to receive federal money for the cleanup.

“We are open and very, very safe,” said Perdue, who rushed to the rockslide site after returning from a two-week cultural and trade mission to China and Japan. “If you want to see beauty and glory, you come right now.”

Perdue anticipates that the federal government will cover 100 percent of the cleanup cost, as it typically does after a natural disaster. In addition, Perdue hopes to launch a short-term co-op marketing campaign, funded by federal, state and local money, to publicize alternate routes into WNC.

Perdue toured the rockslide site on Wednesday (Oct. 28), along with Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti and Deputy Commerce Secretary Dale Carroll, and N.C. Reps. Phil Haire and Ray Rapp.

Perdue remarked that the 150-foot tall and 200- to 300-foot wide rockslide looked much bigger in person.

“Those boulders are enormous,” said Perdue.

The N.C. Department of Transportation estimates that it will take about four months to open the 20-mile section of I-40 now closed to thru-traffic.

The department has hired Phillips & Jordan of Knoxville, and rock stabilization specialist Jonad Contractors of Champion, N.Y., to perform the work.

So far, contractors have installed a pulley system and moved two drills into place on the face of the mountain slope. They have drilled holes in the rock to set explosives and planned to begin blasting on Tuesday afternoon.

While the biggest challenge lies in stabilizing the precarious rock precipice still looming over the highway, crews will also continue to break up the largest boulders lying in the road for a couple of weeks. At that point, they will have a much better estimate of when I-40 will be able to reopen.

The N.C. DOT has set up a Web site dedicated to updates on the cleanup efforts with a map of alternate routes, all directly accessible off the home page. The agency will also post daily updates to its Twitter account.

Ted Phillips, owner of Phillips & Jordan, emphasized the need to work safely and steadily using a top-down approach to clear the rocks.

“You can’t work down below and undermine yourself,” said Phillips. “You can’t remove it until you get it in the condition to remove it.”

While Phillips said it would take a small crew a “real long time” to clean up the rockslide, Phillips said his company has previously handled a lot worse.

“In my scope, it’s not a big job,” Phillips said.


Measuring perceptions

Local and state officials have begun working on a marketing campaign that will publicize the fact that much of WNC is still accessible.

Starting this week, the state Department of Commerce will survey 1,000 prospective travelers in Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., Knoxville, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro to determine awareness of the rockslide, ask about impact on travel plans and test marketing strategies.

Smoky Mountain Host, a tourism organization the represents seven counties west of Asheville, will utilize its hefty database, with 40,000 e-mail addresses of past visitors to the area, to do similar target research.

David Huskins, managing director of Smoky Mountain Host, said N.C. DOT needs to make sure to market alternate routes and let the public know they can still reach points west of Asheville.

Ron Leatherwood, a board member of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and former DOT board member, encourages locals to patronize the businesses that are most likely to be affected by the I-40 closure, especially the gas stations, motels and restaurants clustered at exits 20 and 24.

Local and state authorities who were around for the last major rockslide on I-40 in 1997 said they were better trained to handle the crisis this time around. Lynn Minges with the State Department of Commerce said as soon as the agency found out about the rockslide, it got on the phone to rally its troops.

The completion of I-26 also helped route trucks away from the two-lane roads they had to resort to during the last rockslide. In addition, the advent of the Internet, with its perpetually updated social media sites, has made connecting with prospective travelers much easier.

Minges estimates that about $150,000 was spent on advertising alternate routes and promoting travel to Western North Carolina last time around.

No quick fix for rock slide that closes I-40

Western North Carolina is bracing itself for the impact of a massive rockslide that will shut down a major chunk of Interstate 40 near the Tennessee border for about three months.

The rockslide occurred 2 a.m. Sunday morning three miles from the Tennessee state line in Haywood County, burying both sides of the highway under a mountain of rubble 150 feet high and 200 to 300 feet wide.

Three vehicles crashed into the rocks shortly after the slide, and one person was transported to the hospital for minor injuries.

“We were very fortunate. There were no serious injuries or fatalities,” said Nicole Meister, spokeswoman for N.C. Department of Transportation.

Since the slide, the N.C. DOT declared an emergency, shut down 20 miles of I-40, and brought in workers to begin surveying the slide site.

The cleanup will cost from $2 to $10 million.

Visitors driving westward to Tennessee are being turned away at exit 20, while locals are getting the go-ahead to sneak up to exit 15, the main road access for the Fines Creek and White Oak communities, as well as the county landfill.

About 25,000 vehicles pass through the closed section of I-40 daily, with about half of those being commercial trucks, according to the NCDOT.

Geotechnical engineers are working with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land, to determine how best to clean up the rockslide.

On Monday, this process involved flyovers with a helicopter and taking numerous pictures of the slide.

Workers will have to take a top-down approach when it comes to removing the rubble.

“If you pull it out from the bottom, it’s going to keep coming,” said Meister.

This stretch of the interstate in Haywood County has been no stranger to slides.

Sunday’s rockslide occurred just a mile and a half down the road from the series of slides that occurred in 1997, which shut down part of the interstate for six months. It is the third major rockslide in that area since the mid-1980s.

Joel Setzer, a division engineer with NCDOT, said the latest rockslide is comprised of more rocks and a lot less soil, compared to the one in 1997.

Setzer said the amount of unstable material above the road seems to be a bigger problem this time around.

“The remedy to stabilizing the slope and restoring the traffic is larger,” said Setzer.

Geotechnical scientists and engineers do not know the exact cause of the slide, but are looking at several potential factors, including possible tremors; freezing and thawing of water in cracks in a wedge in the slope, causing expansion and contraction of the rock plates.

Haywood County braces for economic impacts of prolonged I-40 closure

By all indications, the closing of Interstate 40 due to a massive rockslide will be more than just a minor headache for many.

Through traffic heading west to Tennessee will be directed to I-26 from Asheville, where cars would have to travel 130 miles to link back up with I-40 across the state line.

Though much of Haywood County will still remain accessible off I-40, it’s feasible that widespread news of the rockslide might turn off visitors to the area.

Most likely to suffer from the road closing are the restaurants, gas stations, motels and tourist-oriented businesses that rely heavily on traffic coming through I-40.

Pilot Travel Center, a truck stop in Waynesville near exit 24, was already feeling the impact of a desolate I-40 on Monday afternoon. A few trucks were scattered here and there, but the vast majority of parking spots sat empty.

Ashley Duckett, an employee at the Pilot convenience store, said business was “dead” on Sunday, the day the rockslide occurred.

“It’s usually booming,” said Linda Henry, another employee at the store, adding that business will definitely hurt without truckers stopping by to fuel up, have a meal, or take a shower.

The people who did walk into the store were only interested in one thing: directions.

“Every other person coming in here is asking how do I get to Tennessee? How do I get to Knoxville? How do I get to Gatlinburg?” said Henry.

The store received so many requests for directions that the manager taped up directions on the door and readied a pile of printouts of Mapquest directions at the counter.

Next door at the Midway Motel, owner Brooke Gayne said she didn’t expect anyone to check in Monday night.

“It’ll be bad,” said Gayne. “I don’t see too many people coming past [exit] 27.”

Exit 27 leads to the heavily-trafficked Great Smoky Mountain Expressway.

Summer Smart, a waitress at the Haywood Cafe near exit 24 on I-40, said the restaurant had not seen one trucker all day.

Smart remembered a drop-off in business after the last rockslide in 1997 closed down a section of I-40 for months. Though locals remained faithful customers, holiday travelers who usually flooded the restaurant were hard to find that year.

James Carver, owner of Maggie Valley Restaurant, also recalled facing a hardship after the last rockslide.

“Business went down a great bit,” said Carver. “It just brought everything to a standstill.”

Carver said businesses would continue to feel an impact even after N.C. DOT cleans up the rockslide and restores traffic.

“It takes a while for word to get around that everything’s open,” said Carver.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce are already working hard to spread the word about alternate routes to keep tourists from Tennessee trickling into the region.

The TDA will post these very detailed directions on its Web site and social media sites, attaching to their Web site a map with alternate routes.

“With several alternate routes available, there really is no reason to cancel any travel plans to the area, whether for these last weeks of leaf-looking or the upcoming ski season,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority

Collins reassures those forced to make the detour that there are “terrific scenic routes with some amazing views along the way.”

Wayne Carson, a staff member at the Canton visitor’s center off I-40, said he’s noted a spike in the number of visitors who want to avoid the interstate anyway.

He said all summer, tourists have requested directions for traveling on back roads and visiting smaller communities on the way.

Carson directed some confused visitors headed toward Gatlinburg through Cherokee and then over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park via U.S. 441 on Monday. It is possible that towns along that route will see a pick-up in visitors who would have normally taken I-40 to Tennessee.

Unlike the 1997 rockslide, which shut down roads for the peak summer and fall seasons, this latest rockslide occurred at the beginning of the off-season for most businesses.

“Fall foliage is winding down, but we’re going into ski season. We don’t want to jeopardize that either,” said Collins.

According to Collins, many visitors who come to ski at Cataloochee Ski Area come from the Southeast, not Tennessee.

Tammy Brown, spokeswoman for the ski resort, said they still anticipate a good ski season since a colder than average winter has been forecasted.

Brown said the rockslide will definitely impact business, but by how much is anyone’s guess.

“We’re going to do our best to facilitate individuals from that neck of the woods,” said Brown.

Meanwhile, Alice Mosteller, vice president of a real estate agency in Waynesville, is worried that the rockslide might negatively affect a real estate market that’s just beginning to pick up.

“Just anything that would keep people from coming here is not good,” said Mosteller. “This is the most beautiful time of year possible. What a horrible weekend for it to happen.”

Bridging the divide: Maggie struggles to find new identity among tourists, second-home owners and year-round residents

Home to 3,000 motel rooms yet only 1,610 year-round residents, Maggie Valley can’t exactly escape the term “tourist town.”

Anyone driving through the main drag passing a long line of lodging options would know. But perhaps less evident to visitors is the precarious balancing act the town constantly faces in satisfying both tourist and local needs.

In helping to achieve that delicate equilibrium and develop a vision for future growth, Maggie Valley has formed its own Economic Development Advisory Committee. Though the town officially created an economic development advisory commission way back in September 2005, the ball finally got rolling on the committee only recently.

The seven members appointed to the committee last month will serve as a liaison between businesses, the town and citizens of the community. The commission has met twice so far to formulate a better idea of its responsibilities and avoid redundancies.

The EDC faces the gargantuan task of creating an attractive model of growth that will satisfy everybody, from year-round residents to the increasing number of second-home owners to tourists simply visiting for a few days. Since Maggie Valley has long catered to tourists, one of the EDC’s tasks may be to update the town’s tourism model, which has been criticized in the past for being somewhat outdated.

As the main breadwinner for the Haywood Tourism Development Authority, with nearly 60 percent of the authority’s revenues coming from Maggie Valley, how the town handles its growth - and how that affects tourism - will clearly be relevant outside its borders.


What Maggie Valley wants

The EDC has discussed the idea of surveying residents and local business owners to learn more about what the community craves in terms of growth. Asking Maggie Valley residents about what they’d like to see developed in their town will naturally elicit some divergent reactions, but there does seem to be a near consensus on some issues. While many acknowledge that tourism is the “lifeblood” of Maggie Valley, they would like to see more services for full-time residents.

One step in that direction is to keep businesses open year round.

“Some of us who are open need to survive the winter,” said Gabriela Edwards, co-owner of A Holiday Motel. “The ski area is great and Tube World is great, but they’re done in the evening so it’s like, what do we do now?”

“More businesses in Maggie Valley need to bite the bullet and stay open year round,” Joe Moody, who serves on the board of directors for the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Bob LaBracio, who owns Specialty Lock & Door Company, said he’d like to see stores selling more than just “T-shirts and trinkets” open all year.

Also on LaBracio’s wish list are healthier choice restaurants and specialty grocery stores like Earth Fare and Greenlife. Many residents interviewed expressed interest in having a grocery store of any kind developed so they wouldn’t have to drive elsewhere to pick up groceries.

Ken Johnson, chairman of the newly formed EDC, said it’s been difficult to bring a grocery store to Maggie Valley since there are so few full-time residents, but a specialty store might be a feasible option. Making up for Maggie Valley’s sparse population, a specialty store would have a broad demographic and attract people from neighboring counties.

However, there is at least one point of contention for residents: fast food chain restaurants. Some residents prefer more options for a quick bite to eat, while others are strongly against chain establishments.

“I’d like to see McDonald’s and Dairy Queen [rather than] go all the way over to Waynesville,” said Gene O’Kelley, a regular on the front bench of the Shell gas station in town. “McDonald’s would do good here.”

“I don’t mind going to Waynesville,” said Joanne Martin, owner of Fireside Cottages and Mountaineer Restaurant. “I don’t want Burger King and McDonald’s up and down.”

Other suggestions for businesses included a pharmacy, a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office and more medical facilities in general.


Preservation as a goal

Jim Higel, owner of Legends Sports Grill, said Maggie Valley might just need more of the same.

“We need more shops, motels and restaurants,” Higel said. “If you have a motel in the middle of the desert, you’re bankrupt. If you have 500, you’re Las Vegas.”

But being akin to Las Vegas is a far cry from what other residents want.

“It’s not what you want to see, it’s what you don’t want to see,” said Wayne Busch, owner of America Rides Maps. “I prefer not seeing any change at all, but it’s going to come.”

Though some Maggie Valley residents can spout off a list of things they’d like to add to the town, there are some facets of Maggie Valley living they do not want touched.

Busch said industry and manufacturing should not even be considered. “What we got here is somewhat fragile,” said Busch.

Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House, said she’d like to see Maggie Valley take a step back and focus on its mountain culture.

“I think we can market ourselves in a different way,” said O’Keefe. “I have always wanted this area to look back toward heritage culture.”

Kathleen Klawitter, a member of the EDC, moved to Maggie Valley a month after her first visit last year. She said she is interested most in preserving what brought her here in the first place though she knows growth is somewhat inevitable.

“I believe Maggie Valley will grow anyway. Its beauty and tranquility will invite growth,” said Klawitter.

Steve Shiver, another EDC member and president of Ghost Town, said there is a need to officially gather community input and data collection to see both what residents desire and what is possible.

According to Shiver, Maggie Valley’s infrastructure can handle more tourists. Drawing more visitors to the area would benefit everybody in town with better tax revenues, he said.

But for now, the town’s major projects seem to include a focus on residents. The town is putting in two wheelchair accessible river decks in Parham Park near Jonathan Creek and working on getting a “very promising” $1.3 million in stimulus funds to build the first residential sidewalk in Maggie Valley. It has also recently approved a special zoning exception for an assisted living facility.

Maggie chases festivals as ticket to tourism

When the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen purchased land for a town festival ground in 2002, it had high hopes for success.

Events held there would reel in visitors to stay at local motels, eat at local restaurants, and shop at local stores.

As well intentioned as the act may have been — seven years and more than $1 million later — the festival grounds is still not producing enough money to cover expenses. The town recently decided to write off the debt, which means money generated from the festival grounds won’t be used to pay back the town’s general fund, which has been covering costs ever since the festival grounds were created.

The town rushed to develop the festival grounds to compensate for a potential dwindling in tourism after Ghost Town, an amusement park and one of Maggie Valley’s anchors of tourism, shut down temporarily.

The Town of Maggie Valley has paid for roughly half of the $1 million cost of buying the property and installing improvements, with the rest of the money coming from grants and donations.

Annually, the festival grounds has brought in an average of nearly $11,000 in revenues, paid by groups holding festivals there. Meanwhile operating expenses runs an average of about $31,000 annually.

“The festival grounds fund doesn’t generate enough money to pay off the expenses to run the festival grounds,” said Town Manager Tim Barth.

Furthermore, revenue doesn’t begin to cover debt on the property, both from land purchase and improvements made over the years, such as a stage, restrooms and concession stand. The debt has averaged $147,000 a year.

“The general fund is still making the payment every year for the land,” Barth said.

The result is that town taxpayers, including residents with no personal stake in tourism, have been saddled with subsidizing the operation.

Barth said the town never envisioned that the festival grounds would be a profitable venture. Its main function was to bring tourists to “spend time in Maggie and spend money in Maggie.”

But Alderman Phil Aldridge said while others claim the festival grounds will never be a “money making proposition,” he begs to differ. According to Aldridge, the town could make a better effort to promote the festival grounds.

“Why say the race is over when it’s only half run?” said Aldridge. “You’re investing into something. It takes money to make money.”


Revolving door

The town is hoping to bring in fresh talent yet again to aid the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds in attracting events. Town leaders have oscillated over the years on whether the town needed a dedicated festival director, seeing a few come and go without lasting success. The last festival director, who was fired in May, lasted a mere three months.

Barth said the town board decided to see if it could go without the position and still have events materialize. The laissez-faire approach has now been put aside, as the town is once again on the hunt for a festival director who will better market the venue.

A 1 percent tax on Maggie Valley’s lodging will fund about $20,000 of the next festival director’s salary, with the town making up the rest.

Maggie Valley’s festival season, which runs from May to October, saw a total of 11 festivals this year, compared to 13 the year before.

Some business owners said the festival grounds has great potential for success, and the move to hire a festival director should have happened a long time ago.

“They need to put somebody in charge,” said Jim Higel, owner of Legends Sports Grill. “Nobody knows who to call.”

“The problem with the festival grounds is who’s managing it,” said Joanne Martin, owner of the Mountaineer Restaurant and Fireside Cottages. “The festival grounds is an important part of the town’s well-being. They really need to get that hitched up.”

Tammy Brown, chairwoman of the town’s parks, recreation, and festival advisory committee, said even though the town has been very dedicated to making improvements to the festival grounds, there has been a need all along for someone to market it to the public.

“It’s time to actually go after folks that have the ability to come in and put on an event,” Brown said. “The town is not in the business of putting on events and festivals. It’s time-intensive, labor-intensive ... There are folks out there that are promoters that do this for a living.”


Try, try again

Earlier this year, the outgoing festival director complained that cost charged for using the festival grounds was a deterrent in landing events. Brown said the festival advisory board asked the former director to do a study on costs at similar venues, but it was never completed.

When the festival grounds was just starting up, Brown’s board did research rents for similar-sized venues to ensure prices were fair.

Running an event at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds currently costs for-profit organizations $500 per day and non-profits $250 each day. In addition, there’s a $1,000 deposit and $250 per day charge for using the stage, water, electricity and lighting.

Earlier this year, Jeff Cody, sponsor for Rocky Mountain Events, cancelled a mini-truck show due to higher than anticipated fees. According to Cody, the additional fee for the use of electricity, the stage and the water was “ridiculous.” Cody said insurance costs were also more expensive in North Carolina than in Tennessee, where he eventually moved the event.

Regardless of the festival grounds’ somewhat lackluster revenues, there are still some who are optimistic about its future.

Joe Moody, who serves on the board of directors for the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the festival grounds is a great venue even if it isn’t a moneymaking venture. Moody said the grounds is successful in supporting local businesses.

In his opinion, a full-time festival director would be valuable for the entire county and could be pursued as a joint effort.

“It should be rolled together,” Moody said. “[The director] needs to be able to sell the whole county, not just Maggie Valley.

What’s in a name? Tourism web site succumbs to proper spelling

The Haywood Tourism Development Authority announced some good news last week for all those miffed by the incorrect spelling of “Smoky” on its official Web site’s address.

The TDA has put up $14 to buy a new URL, www.visitncsmokies.com, to eventually replace the old address, www.smokeymountains.net. Jay Sokolow, who helps market the TDA, said the new URL is advantageous for multiple reasons.

“It’ll be much more recognizable, memorable,” Sokolow said.

For starters, there’s the use of an action word “visit.” Another improvement is the phrase “NC.”

“It really reflects and addresses a concern of the TDA that the Smokies are more heavily associated with Tennessee than North Carolina,” Sokolow said.

But the improvement that may stick out most to sticklers for correct spelling is the nixing of “Smokey” in the site address — which incorrectly boasts the letter “e”.

“They don’t want people to think we don’t know how to spell Smokies,” said Sokolow.

Having a .com ending rather than a .net is also beneficial since most of the well-known Web sites have that suffix, Sokolow said.

Until the new site is fully set up, visitors to www.visitncsmokies.com will be redirected to the existing site. The TDA will soon begin to use the new site address in its marketing materials, literature, and the visitor’s guide.

In addition to news of the new URL, Sokolow said his marketing company would try to decrease dependence on Google Adwords while optimizing SEO terms. In plain speech, that means the TDA will try to help online searchers find its site more easily with tactical placement of keywords, rather than via pay-per-click advertisements that show up at the top of Google search results for those very same words.

Still, the TDA will have to continue paying to show up on top when it comes to such generic terms like “Smoky Mountains,” and even “Smokey Mountains” since there are so many business names and Web sites that include those particular words.

Other keywods the TDA has purchased in the past include “Ghost Town,” “North Carolina Mountains,” and “NC getaways.”

Sokolow said while Google Adwords clients must only pay up when someone actually clicks on the link to their pages, it would be best to pay nothing and have the page show up “organically” in search results.

According to Sokolow, the TDA has spent a ceiling of almost $2,500 a month on Google Adwords alone.

Scenic beauty, yes, but what about things to do?

By Andre A. Rodriguez • Special to the Smoky Mountain News

A new travel study revealed potential visitors lack awareness about activities and attractions in Cherokee and the surrounding region, detering them from planning a visit.

“People don’t have a very good understanding of Western North Carolina and the things to see or do here,” said Rob Bell, interim executive director for the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. “They’re aware of the scenic beauty and not aware of the activities.”

The study was aimed at increasing the effectiveness of tourism marketing on the Qualla Boundary and the seven counties of the Smoky Mountain Host region — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Clay, Cherokee and Graham.

“We wanted to understand why people aren’t coming and if they had come what they liked and what they didn’t like,” said Bell. “What kind of things would motivate (visitors) to come?”

The study was commissioned by the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and Smoky Mountain Host and funded by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Travel and Promotion, Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, Western Carolina University and the Goss Agency were also partners in the study.

The Marketing Workshop out of Norcross, Ga., based the study on 600 online interviews with adults who have inquired about the North Carolina Smoky Mountains within the past four years, online interviews with 600 residents within a 300 mile radius outside Western North Carolina who may or may not have visited the area, and 50 telephone interviews with Cherokee Chamber members whose businesses deal with tourists.

The study concluded Cherokee needed to improve the quality of dining options, nightlife and variety of things to do on the Qualla Boundary. Families are looking for more family-friendly activities, and adults desire more nightlife and other activities besides Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

One of the things that stuck out for Bell — aside from the soft economy — was there were so many other places people wanted to visit. For example, they were looking for a vacation at the beach rather than one in the mountains.

Cherokee and the rest of the Smoky Mountain Host area would also benefit from improved perceptions of value for the money, which would have a significant impact on travelers the region seeks to draw, the study concluded. Most of visitors to the region are couples over the age of 55, according to the study, but the region seeks to draw more families with children.

Providing visitors and prospective visitors with sample itineraries and more education about activities in the area, along with package deals or a discount pass for the region, would help motivate more people to visit.

Bell said his organization is already at work on one of the study’s recommendations, which was to provide visitors and prospective visitors with sample itineraries.

“There’s a great hunger for sample itineraries,” Bell said. “We started preparing some that will soon go up on our Web site (www.blueridgeheritage.com).

“One thing that popped out to me with the study findings is people are planning their travel on a much shorter time frame. A lot of folks don’t have time to wait for material in the mail. They’re doing planning on the Internet and hopping in their cars and heading out that weekend or the next weekend. We need to be smarter about how we get the information out there about attractions and lodgings,” Bell said.

People are also interested in finding a good deal, such as area discount passes. The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area offers visitors the Go Blue Ridge card, which provides admission to up to 30 area attractions for two-, three- or five-day increments, including the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Oconaluftee Indian Village and performances of Unto these Hills.

Bell anticipates more attractions will get on board with the Go Blue Ridge program.

The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area is also in the process of rebuilding its destination-marketing Web site.

“We’re taking the study findings to heart,” he said. “People want to know that there’s a variety of things to do in the area. The Web site makes it easier to access that information.”

Susan Jenkins, executive director of Cherokee Preservation Foundation, said she was encouraged by the study.

“Cherokee Preservation Foundation is pleased to have supported research that identifies opportunities to increase family visitation by providing more family activities and then making the presence of such activities known. The foundation has sponsored previous research about heritage tourism efforts undertaken by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and we are committed to helping the members of the tribe market Cherokee and continuously improve what the Qualla Boundary has to offer visitors,” Jenkins said.

Tourism office takes tech strides

In her nearly six-month tenure as executive director, Lynn Collins has been helping Haywood County’s Tourism Development Authority make strides — especially in using technology to be more effective for tourism operators and visitors.

As a prominent example, the tourism authority plans to implement a top-of-the-line booking system on its website. Visitors to the site will be able to get tickets to attractions and make reservations at local accommodations with just a few clicks of the mouse — making it simpler than the systems on lead booking sites such as Travelocity.com, Collins told the TDA board at its June 24 meeting.

Under the new system, “bookings can take only three steps versus five or six” with others, Collins said.

The system will be embedded in TDA’s website, but will connect invisibly and seamlessly to the ticketing or reservation system of tourism businesses, Collins said. The company offering the system will preview it for the board TDA and its members in the near future.

Other advances include installation of a new phone system in the TDA’s office — “with voice mail,” Collins told the board with a hint of mock exultation.

On the outreach and PR front, TDA’s monthly newsletter, “TDA Tidbits,” has gone digital, for the kind of immediate and ongoing accessibility sometimes compromised with a paper publication, which can get tossed aside or lost in piles of clutter.

The TDA also previously launched a YouTube channel, where tourism operators can post short videos about their establishment. And it is leveraging so-called social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to broaden its reach and appeal. According to TDA’s inaugural March edition of its newsletter, “This presence on these Social Media sites allows us to directly connect with potential visitors, providing interactive content, a blog, video, photos, quick responses to any questions, and more.”

Finally, TDA is grappling with helping tourism operators create and raise their profile with users of the “mobile web,” where people can access travel and tourism information from their cell phones.


Marketing plan

The board also adopted its new marketing plan, following a presentation on it by TDA board member and marketing committee chair Marion Hamel, in absence of Jay Sokolow of The Tombras Group, who developed it. The plan aims to concentrate advertising in what are believed to be the highest-value markets — namely nearby metro areas such as Charlotte and Atlanta. Generally considered the top sources of tourists in the region, Collins said that’s likely truer than ever, with more people vacationing closer to home in a tough economy.

The plan also seeks to be more selective and cost-efficient in how it spreads its advertising dollars around in national publications and other venues. The TDA’s revenue comes from a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging in the county and is pumped back in to tourism promotions. The marketing plan calls for spending $254,000 on advertising buys.

The difficult economy notwithstanding, Collins said tourist spending on overnight lodging in the county is only down about 6 percent so far for the fiscal year ending June 30, while many colleagues encountered at a recent conference reported double-digit declines. She said she believes that is because the area is rather central to key locales where the county draws visitors from, something of a crossroads.

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