“This is our season. We have to make hay in June, July and August when school is out,” said Priscilla Flowers of Alyxandra’s, an upscale clothing establishment on Highland’s Main Street. “Are they purposely trying to bankrupt the small businesses of Western North Carolina? Because that’s sure what it feels like.”
Highlands sits on a high, isolated plateau with only a few roads for people to get there or leave there. U.S. 64 through the Cullasaja Gorge in Macon County is perhaps its most important traffic artery. Flowers said U.S. 64 from Franklin to Highlands is a critical feeder route to the town for tourists from north Georgia and Tennessee. Additionally, many workers in Highlands live in Franklin and commute via U.S. 64 to their jobs.
Repaving started this week and could take two months. The road will be reduced to one lane, causing delays, for part of the time. During part of the project, however, drivers will be forced to use Buck Creek Road, which more or less parallels U.S. 64 but is a longer way around, as an alternate route from Franklin to Highlands.
U.S. 64 was last repaved about 10 years ago. The road surface saw side effects from the tropical storms of 2004, said Joel Setzer, division engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation. Heavy rains, which were particularly intense in that area, caused the fill beneath the road to settle and resulted in uneven paving surfaces, he said.
There will be just three days when the highway is completely shutdown, Setzer said. That will take place when contractors are repaving what’s known locally as “the narrows,” a section of the highway that perches high above the Cullasaja Gorge. There’s not room for vehicles to get around a paving machine at that point of the highway, he said, forcing the shutdown for safety reasons.
Setzer said except during those three days there would be one-lane traffic flowing on U.S. 64.
The repaving project is scheduled to go through July. DOT District Engineer Wesley Grindstaff said that the contractor would not be allowed to close any lanes of traffic from June 29 to July 9, which should help Highlands merchants over the July 4 holiday weekend.
Catherine Peay of The Briar Patch, a home accessory store on U.S. 64 between Highlands and Cashiers, said she believes that people who want to visit Highlands will visit Highlands, even with the inconvenience of the U.S. 64 paving project and the necessity of finding alternate routes or suffering through traffic delays.
“If people want to get up here they’ll figure it out,” Peay said.
Her husband, Jack, agreed, saying DOT has to repave the highway sometime.
Other merchants weren’t so sanguine, however.
“This is the worst time it could be. This is very poor planning on someone’s part — they should have thought about the region and how important that road is to get tourists up here for us,” said Lloyd Wagoner of The Hen House Condiment Shop on Main Street.
Wagoner said business has been slow anyway lately in Highlands, and that the added burden of a repaving project on U.S. 64 certainly doesn’t help merchants.
Setzer said asphalt is temperature sensitive and cannot be put down during the winter.
“It doesn’t perform and it won’t last long and then you are right back to where you were,” he said.
Merchants, while they were generally understanding of and sympathetic to the wintertime limitations on paving, said they wished the DOT had instead undertaken the project sometime from March through May. Setzer said there were concerns about interfering with school traffic during those times and that local school officials had expressed a preference to wait until school was out.
Linda Bubenick of 4th Street Boutique said the U.S. 64 project is going to have a real impact on merchants’ financial wellbeing, including hers.
“Personally I find it very unfortunate they had to do this repaving in the height of the season. It certainly won’t help us,” Bubenick said. “Am I happy? No. Can I do anything about it? No. But these are our months. If we don’t make it from Memorial Day through October then we go hungry in the winter.”
Tina Anderson, owner of the clothing store Xtreme Threads on Main Street, also is gloomy about prospects for the upcoming few months for merchants in Highlands.
“It has been slow anyway,” she said. “The people are here, but it’s not the amount of people we usually see. It should be booming and it is not. And the work on U.S. 64 will definitely not help us any.”