This November, the Town of Dillsboro will elect all five members of its town board, along with a new mayor to replace Jean Hartbarger, who is stepping down after eight years as mayor and eight years as alderwoman.
One incumbent and eight challengers are hoping for a spot on the five-person town board. Another alderman has decided to run for mayor, facing competition from one other challenger. The town board members and the new mayor, who does not hold voting power, will each serve a four-year term.
In those next four years, Dillsboro’s leaders will formulate a strategy to win back the hordes of tourists — about 60,000 annually — who once came to take trips on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, which pulled out of town in July 2008.
The excursion railroad’s headquarters were in Dillsboro before the company moved all its operations to Bryson City.
The Town of Dillsboro recently partnered up with Western Carolina University to create a long-term vision for the municipality and brainstorm on how to boost a local economy slammed both by the recession and the train’s departure.
Another major issue facing the town is the fate of Dillsboro Dam.
Jackson County is battling it out with Duke Energy in federal court to prevent the Fortune 500 company from tearing down the dam.
Depending on who wins, the dam could be taken down by Duke or taken over by the county to be included in a riverfront park.
Many Dillsboro residents are infuriated with Duke and have circulated petitions to save the historic dam. Candidates for mayor and the town board recently weighed in on both key issues and discussed their vision for Dillsboro.
Mayor – pick 1
Teresa Dowd, 59, owner of West Carolina Internet Café
Dowd wants to work closely with Jackson County and the Town of Sylva, as well major employers, to help promote the town in a much more effective manner.
“I want to see the merchants not just survive, but thrive, and help them find the right niche.” Dowd said many ideas are floating around with the WCU initiative, but she would make sure those ideas are properly implemented.
Dowd added that businesses in town would do well to stay open later, thereby meeting residents’ needs.
Dowd, who is the chairwoman of Dillsboro’s planning board and holds a degree in environmental studies, said the dam is worth preserving. She has been a vocal supporter of saving the dam but said the town can’t interfere with the judicial process.
Dowd added that she hated to see Duke begin dredging backlogged sediment behind the dam in preparation for its demolition. “We’ll have to monitor the water quality, see what’s going on.”
Michael Fitzgerald, 57, owner of Fitzgerald’s Shoe Repair
Fitzgerald has served on the town board for five years and is now Dillsboro’s vice mayor. He said the town must redefine the way it does business to attract more tourists — without undergoing a complete makeover.
“We don’t want to look like Gatlinburg with Day-Glo Signs. We’re just a historic type of town.”
Fitzgerald said with such a small budget, the town probably can’t make another major investment until the Monteith Park project is complete.
Fitzgerald said he was asked about the dam four years ago when he ran for alderman. “The answer is the same. Dillsboro is not big enough to take Duke Power.”
Fitzgerald said he applauds Jackson County for trying to save a dam he sees as “picturesque,” but it may be time to move on. “I believe it’s time for it to end. I’m glad we’re going to get some closure.”
Alderperson – pick 5
Jimmy Cabe, 46, former carpenter
Cabe has served on the town board for the last 4 years. Cabe would like to cooperate with merchants in town and gain more input about increasing tourism before devoting town money to a specific strategy. “I’d be willing to listen to anybody’s plan.”
Cabe also said he’d like to see the town begin garbage pickup and build a sidewalk west of the Huddle House out toward the Green Energy Park.
When it comes to the dam, Cabe said he supports the county wholeheartedly. “My grandfather was the superintendent of that powerhouse. It’s an emotional thing for me ... I would like to see it stay.”
Walter Cook, 57, owner of Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery
Cook would like Dillsboro to be a “real living town rather than just tourist shops.”
He envisions a downtown where locals can have breakfast, lunch and dinner, visit a health food store and listen to live music — all within town limits. “We can’t depend on the tourists driving by. We need to market to the local folks, too.”
Cook said he would like to see the dam remain but is not sure it’s worth the cost of pursuing a legal battle.
“If it goes away, I think we should have bargained a lot harder.”
Cook said whatever happens, the town must adjust and do what’s best for its residents. That may include creating a riverfront park or it might mean using that land to develop housing to increase the tax base.
David Gates, 48, owner of Bradley’s General Store, Appalachian Funeral Services
Gates said his number one priority is to take care of Dillsboro’s residents. According to Gates, the town must bring in more glassblowers, potters, and local craftspeople to appeal to visitors.
“If we could attract more crafters, I think it would bring a lot of people.”
The dam is a “dead issue” to Gates. “I think the dam is gone. I don’t know that there’s anything that Dillsboro or the county can do to save it.”
Gates said it could end up being a win-win situation. Removing the dam would open up the area for rafting and tubing, or if it stays, it could be put into operation. “There’s opportunities either way.”
K. David Jones, 64, retired vice-president of administrative services at a community college
Jones would like to take an active role in promoting the town to tourists who are in the region but don’t know about Dillsboro.
He said he would also search for “more diverse” types of funding, like grants and even gifts, to supplement a “very lean” tax base. Jones wants to work with WCU in all aspects, including on environmental issues.
Jones said the dam is a “non-issue” for the town. “I’m not real sure that we should resist the dam efforts any further. ... It’s over with.”
Tim Parris, 54, mechanic and DOT worker
Parris said he favors increasing the tax base by attracting more businesses to town. “Everybody’s going to have to sit down and work together and get something back in Dillsboro.”
Parris said he would also like to see more support to keep the dam in Dillsboro. “They always talk about green energy, why get rid of one?”
Joseph Riddle, 69, retired car dealership manager
Riddle said Dillsboro is not big enough to bring in a major new attraction. “You can’t put a Dollywood here. There’s just not enough space.”
Riddle said there’s not much the town can do until the economy improves, but he believes the partnership with WCU is a positive development. Riddle said he’s focused more on providing more services to local residents.
Riddle acknowledged that locals feel strongly about the dam, which does draw tourists and is “nice to look at.” He said, “That decision’s been made. I don’t think there’s anything else that can be done.”
TJ Walker, 56, owner of Dillsboro Inn
Walker, who narrowly lost Dillsboro’s last race for mayor, said he’d try to bring forward thinking to the town. He would do so by appealing to younger people traveling by and bringing in newer and younger artists and craftspeople.
Walker said he’d love to see an artist’s cooperative or a farmer’s market set up at the old railroad station. He supports cooperating with WCU and Jackson County in general. “Dillsboro has suffered from self-imposed isolation.”
Walker was a leading opponent of tearing down the Dillsboro dam for years. But after settling a lawsuit with Duke to withdraw from the fight, Walker would not comment on the dam. In the past, Walker condemned town leaders for not doing more to join the county’s fight save the dam.
Charles Wise, 46, regional superintendent for property management
Wise said what Dillsboro needs is a new anchor for tourism that distinguishes the town from everywhere else in the area.
“Every town has the same thing. You gotta have something that separates you.”
Meanwhile, Wise said the town mustn’t leave out local residents in its considerations. For example, the town should keep parks open year-round, he said.
Wise said he supports Jackson County “120 percent” in its fight against Duke and is disappointed that the current town board did not join forces with the county to strike up a deal to acquire the dam.
He said the dam is a part of the town’s history. “You can’t hold on to everything. ... but I don’t see the reason for why that dam should come out.”
Emma Wertenberger, 63, owner of Squire Watkins Inn
Wertenberger is strongly interested in Dillsboro’s heritage, which she said might be the key to bringing in tourists from all around the world. International visitors appreciate the small-town American charm that Dillsboro represents, she said.
According to Wertenberger, restoring the Monteith farmstead could bring a big boost to tourism. Wertenberger emphasized that unlike the train, the farmstead couldn’t just get up and leave.
Wertenberger said she’d rather focus on cleaning up the waterways and fixing problems with the sewer plant than on Dillsboro dam. “Sometimes you can get too focused on a single issue ... there are other issues that need to be worked on.”