Tug-of-war over Cherokee sign takes a new turn

Maggie Valley has been rallying allies in its fight to save a small but perhaps precious sliver of its struggling tourism trade: pass-thru business from travelers en route to Cherokee.

A highway sign currently proclaims Maggie Valley as the proper way to reach Cherokee for tourists coming from Interstate 40. But Maggie could be stripped of this coveted status.

A new sign has been proposed that would lay-out two possible routes to Cherokee: one through Maggie Valley and one that continues through Jackson County.

The Maggie route is shorter distance-wise, but follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. The route through Jackson County is longer, but sticks to a four-lane divided highway.

Maggie leaders perceive any change in the signage as a threat, potentially diverting tourist traffic away from their doorstep and into the welcoming arms of Jackson County instead.

Maggie Valley Mayor Ron Desimone said directional signs shouldn’t be hijacked as a tool to promote one town at the expense of another.

The push for new signage came from Jackson County leaders and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. As a result, the N.C. Department of Transportation has been studying the issue for several weeks, comparing traffic counts, drive time, crash statistics and scouting the roadside for where a new sign could go.

While tourists’ wallets are clearly an undercurrent in the tug-of-war over the Cherokee sign, DOT maintains that won’t influence its decision.

“Economic development is not going to be a factor,” said Cece Hipps, president of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. “It doesn’t carry any weight to say it would hurt economic development in our county if they changed the route. Their number one is safety.”

As a result both sides have resorted to arguing their route is the safest or most direct.

But clearly that is not what drove Jackson County to try to wrest the Cherokee sign away from Maggie Valley in the first place, Maggie Valley Town Manager Tim Barth said.

“They said it has nothing to do with business, but it has everything to do with business,” Barth said.

“I’m sure their motive is the same as ours,” agreed Ron Leatherwood, chairman of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.


Much ado about nothing

Just how much Maggie stands to lose if the sign is changed is anyone’s guess, but to the struggling mom-and-pop motels and diners lining Maggie’s main drag, losing even one room night or one table is one too much in this economy.

Thus, Maggie pledged earlier this month not to give up without a fight, and since then has sprung into action.

A meeting of key players in Haywood County’s business and tourism sectors, along with town leaders from Waynesville and Maggie, held a strategy meeting Monday to craft their own lobbying campaign.

The attention the debate has garnered had some in the room scratching their head over how much difference it will really make.

“I don’t think anyone is going to see a blip in their business one way or the other,” Leatherwood said. “I see it as much ado about nothing. But there are 10 of us in here having a meeting about it so it must be something.”

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown also questioned whether directional signs really influence the route travelers take.

“If you want to go to Cherokee, you already know how you are going to Cherokee,” Brown said.

Waynesville was put in the middle of the debate early on. Technically, Waynesville stands to gain by a new sign. Right now, Cherokee-bound travelers who take the Maggie highway exit never make it to Waynesville’s doorstep. Jackson County leaders assumed that Waynesville would like the idea of a new sign, encouraging Cherokee visitors to instead stay on the highway and giving Waynesville a shot at capturing some of the traffic.

But Waynesville, it appears, has put its allegiance with Maggie Valley as a fellow Haywood County town first. Rather than join sides with Jackson, Waynesville has sided with Maggie Valley.

Brown isn’t sure how much tourism business Waynesville would really pick up from pass-thru traffic heading for Cherokee, except for gas stations right near the highway exits.

“I think the gain for Waynesville would minimal, but it could hurt Maggie,” Brown said. “I am not going to stick them when they’ve got problems.”

While it’s easy to ascribe an ulterior motive to Jackson County’s posturing, Haywood’s leaders were puzzled why the tribe has weighed in.

“That’s what I want to know — what’s it in for them?” DeSimone asked.

While U.S. 19 slides undramatically into the backside of the reservation with little in the way of an official welcome, Cherokee sees U.S. 441 as more of a bona fide gateway to the reservation, passing by the doorstep of its signature golf course and bringing tourists in closer proximity to the heart of downtown Cherokee — before eventually arriving face to face with the towering casino entrance. For tourists who come over Soco Gap on U.S. 19, their first view of the casino is its parking deck.

Both the tribe and Harrah’s direct travelers to come in on U.S. 441 — and specifically advise travelers not to take U.S. 19 — in their tourism literature and web sites.

“They are already doing everything they can to drive traffic that route,” Hipps said referring to U.S. 441.

Only about 3,500 vehicles a day on average make the climb over Soco Gap, but it fluctuates widely given the seasonal nature of tourism in Maggie and Cherokee.

“That number can be pretty high in the summer and pretty low in the winter,” said Reuben Moore, technical services engineer for the DOT regional office in Sylva.

Meanwhile, about 15,000 vehicles a day frequent U.S. 441 near the Cherokee exit.


A new sign

The cost of a new sign would be about $100,000 minimum — and perhaps double that depending on how much information it attempts to convey about the two dueling routes.

It’s unclear whether those requesting the new sign could be made to pay for some portion of it.

Maggie leaders expressed frustration that DOT is trying to fix what ain’t broke, but N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, pointed out that this landed in DOT’s lap.

“DOT didn’t invite this. They don’t want it,” said Rapp, who represents Haywood County in Raleigh. Jackson County and the tribe forced the issue with their requests to DOT.

“They have a responsibility to respond to that. They can’t just blow it off,” Rapp said. “I think they are trying to find a compromise that will satisfy everyone.”

But Moore, the DOT’s staffer who came up with the alternative sign, doesn’t like to call it a compromise. That would imply DOT’s goal is to satisfy the whims and wishes of dueling tourism interests.

Rather, DOT is merely acknowledging that there are in fact two ways to Cherokee.

“I hesitate to even call it a compromise, so much as from my point of view a position that correctly communicates the travel options,” Moore said.

The new sign would list each route followed by driving distances: 35 miles through Jackson County and 24 miles through Maggie.

But the sign wouldn’t stop there. A series of footnotes and disclaimers would caution drivers that U.S. 19 through Maggie has “six miles of steep winding road” and is “not recommended for large vehicles.”

There’s plenty of additional factors drivers might like to consider, however. Elderly drivers whose hand-eye coordination and reaction time isn’t as keen as it once was might prefer sticking to the four-lane highway. For any cell-phone addicted drivers out there, it’s worth noting the route over Soco Gap has a whopping three-mile dead zone with no reception. But if you’re craving boiled peanuts or in the market for pottery, the roadside stands of Soco are a must.

But alas, when it comes to additional footnotes, there just isn’t room on the sign as it is. Besides, the DOT won’t get into judgment calls like this and instead is sticking to the empirical data — which route is most direct and which is safest.

U.S. 19 through Maggie wins for being the most direct route, hands down.

“It is a beeline. A curvy, windy beeline maybe, but it is the shortest distance,” Moore said.

So which route is safer? The crash rate — which in simple terms is the ratio of wrecks to the total number of vehicles — is 10 percent higher for the Maggie route.

But Desimone said the crash rate difference is negligible.

“We are really splitting hairs here to get to the safest route,” Desimone said. “There is no compelling reason to change that sign.”

However, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continues to express concerns about wrecks on the narrow, two-lane mountain road, Moore said, especially when it comes to large vehicles, like campers, RVs and motorcoaches.

Moore said he plans to study a breakdown of wrecks in more detail, particularly the large-vehicles that seem to be a source of greater concern.

While each side in the case clamors to pull off the best lobbying campaign, Moore said that won’t factor into their decision, nor will who carries the most political weight.

“Absolutely not,” Moore said of directional signs. “That is a DOT responsibility.”


The great Cherokee sign debate

Haywood and Jackson counties are butting heads over the privilege of being the preferred route to Cherokee — a tagline that carries with it a shot at enticing Cherokee-bound travelers to drop a little change on their way by.

With 3.5 million visitors a year, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is the largest single tourist attraction in the state. Couple that with hundreds of thousands of additional tourists coming to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and it’s easy to see why neighboring communities would be fighting over what at first glance seems like little more than crumbs. All those crumbs can add up.


Turn-about is fair play

No longer resigned to playing defense, Haywood County’s leaders decided to mount their own push for a second sign to Cherokee — one that would be placed in Jackson County letting tourists know they can get to Cherokee by coming through Waynesville and Maggie.

To cater to travelers from the Atlanta region, Haywood wants a highway sign on U.S. 441 near Dillsboro letting travelers know they can get to Cherokee by coming up and around through Haywood County — even if it is a far more circuitous route.

Ron Leatherwood, chairman of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce said if Jackson is asking for a second sign in Haywood, Haywood can ask for a second sign in Jackson.

“We should ask DOT to do the same study. If they are doing it for one, they should do it for us,” Leatherwood said.

The DOT will soon be getting formal letters signed by the county tourism board, the Haywood County Chamber, the Maggie Chamber, the towns of Maggie and Waynesville, the county’s economic development commission and perhaps the county commissioners asking the route through Maggie remain on directional signs for Cherokee. They hope their letters will counter the letters DOT has already received from Jackson County and the tribe.

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