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Wednesday, 25 April 2012 12:38

Two signs to Cherokee after all: Tribe rents billboard

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The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is taking matters into its own hands in the tug-of-war over the best route to Cherokee.

A tribe-purchased billboard on Interstate 40, heading west of Asheville, will soon tout two possible routes to Cherokee. Official highway signs direct Cherokee-bound traffic through Maggie Valley, but both Cherokee and Jackson County leaders had asked the state highway department to change the sign, touching off a dispute between Maggie and Jackson County, both hoping to lay claim to passing tourists en route to Cherokee.

The DOT rejected the request to change the official signs, prompting the tribe to put up its own billboard noting that U.S. 74 is also a direct route to Cherokee. The billboard will target drivers coming from the east, according to Robert Jumper, head of Cherokee Travel and Tourism. The new billboard is in production now, and Jumper expected it to be on I-40 within the next week or so.

Jumper said the tribe hears multiple complaints from motorists at the Cherokee welcome center who have been surprised, and sometimes scared, by the winding two-lane route thru Maggie Valley and over Soco Gap. Some also complain of getting stuck behind slower vehicles because there are no passing lanes, Jumper said.

U.S. 74 through Jackson County, by contrast, is a four-lane highway.

“This is for the benefit of everybody,” Jumper said. “Cherokee is going to provide a billboard that provides the customer with a choice.”

The new billboard will list both options, reading “easy access to Cherokee via U.S. 74 or U.S. 19.”

Jumper said the billboard’s message would ultimately benefit Maggie Valley, too, because some motorists now are frustrated by the trip through the small town on U.S. 19, and that could potentially repel them from wanting to go that way next time. This way, Jumper said somewhat ingeniously, the tribe can redirect those visitors looking for a more “scenic route” on their return trip, and they’ll have a more positive impression of the small Haywood County town because they’ll know what to expect on the two-lane highway.

More than 3.5 million visitors a year come to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, and hundreds of thousands of additional tourists come to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After receiving some poor tourism-related numbers last year, Jackson leaders went hunting for a method to entice more visitors to the county, hence the sign request.

Cherokee quickly jumped on the sign bandwagon, sending letters of support for a new sign from the chief and the tourism office.

The route through Maggie is shorter mileage-wise, but a study by the state DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken. The study also looked at safety and found that the risk of a motorist getting into an accident on U.S. 19 compared to U.S. 74 was negligible. The Maggie route follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. 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 than for U.S. 74.

DOT turned down the request for a new sign citing safety concerns, as in the possibility of more wrecks as motorists attempted to puzzle out a sign offering dueling routes. Cherokee’s billboard will be bigger than a standard highway sign, allowing the information to be read clearly, and will be placed on I-40, giving people plenty of time to decide which route to take rather than a highway sign giving only a split second of decision time before the exit.

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