More than 60 people were packed in like sardines around the board of aldermen to offer their opinions on whether the town should give up its right of way on Fry Street in downtown to make way for a pedestrian-friendly park on the property, which is owned by the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.
Mayor Tom Sutton went through the five pages of people signed up to speak and everyone got his or her allotted three minutes — sometimes longer — to have their say on the matter. He warned everyone to be respectful of others’ opinions and reminded the crowd that the board would not be making a decision that night.
Proponents of the closure spoke about the safety issues on Fry Street with so much pedestrian traffic from the train. Bill Thomas, who has worked seasonally for the train for five years, said there is definitely a crowd control problem in that area, especially during the busy season from October through December with the Polar Express. He said 55,000 people rode the train in 2013 and that number jumped to 72,000 in 2014.
“Whether you close it or not, the people and their children are going to flood it,” he said. “Unless it is closed, it’s not safe for crowds.”
Michael Edwards, another employee of the railroad, said he sees the dangers on Fry Street regularly as a conductor.
“The crazy things people do on that street would blow your mind,” he said.
Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, and Brad Walker, chairman of the Swain County Tourism Development Authority, both spoke briefly in support of the road closure because of safety issues.
“Obviously we would like the street closed,” Wilmot said. “The plan is a good one and the details can be decided after we make this first step.”
Debra Mills, former owner of the Cottage Craftsman on Fry Street, said the area is already a pedestrian thoroughfare whether the town decides to close it off to cars or not.
“That street is very dangerous,” she said. “Town trucks would whip around the corner on two wheels — I don’t know how there haven’t been accidents already.”
Trey Barnett said he and his wife would love to see a safe green space for families with children to gather downtown. He said they love going to Concerts on the Greek in Sylva and listening to music.
“We can watch families play and they don’t have to worry about their children,” Barnett said.
Kim Albritton, vice president and general manager of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, told the board that, because of the safety concerns, this was the third time she had approached the town about closing the street since 2006.
Whether they were for the closure, against it, or undecided, everyone who spoke agreed that something needed to be done to improve the appearance of Fry Street. Though it is a town street that should be maintained, people complained about all the potholes and uneven gravel and wanted to know who would take care of it if the road closed.
“It’s not maintained now — it’s not paved, lit or marked,” said Rebecca Davis, owner of Christmas Time. “It’s a hazard. No one taking care of it.”
Town Attorney Fred Moody said it was currently a town street and should be maintained as such. However, if the town gives up its right of way easement, the property would revert back to the owners — Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and Railroad Realty.
As a conductor for the train, Edwards said he hears a lot of compliments about the beauty of Bryson City, but also hears many people complain about the appearance of Fry Street.
“The other day I was standing in my conductor’s outfit by the depot and a young man, probably about 30, said ‘Aren’t you proud to live in a town that looks like a hallmark card? Except for this’ — he pointed to Fry Street,” Edwards recalled.
Parking and deliveries
Some opponents of closing Fry Street said they were worried about losing the parking spots in front of the Fry Street businesses. Creating a park in that area would make it more difficult for large trucks to make deliveries to those businesses.
Gianna Carson, owner of La Dolce Vita Bakery, said the downtown parking problem would persist whether Fry Street closed or not. However, she said the pedestrian park plan included paving the gravel parking lot behind The Cottage Craftsman, which would have about 30 parking spaces.
Rebecca Davis, owner of Boxcar Café and Cones on Fry Street, said the train depot currently has 12 handicap spaces in front of it. With plans for the park, only six handicap spots would be available in the new lot and the rest of the spots would be first come, first serve.
“There won’t be any parking available by lunch time at my restaurant,” she said.
Paige Christie, owner of The Cottage Craftsman, agreed that less parking would result in less business for her, especially if the park never happens. She said her business drops 60 percent when the street is closed for several days for a festival.
“My greatest concern is if none of this happens, it will destroy business on that street,” she said.
Will the train follow through?
Other residents that were against the street closure or on the fence questioned the true intentions of the closure and whether the train would follow through with the plan to construct a park.
Gil Crouch, who owned a business in Bryson City for 23 years, said the plan for a park sounded great, but there were still too many questions that needed to be answered before the board agrees to close the street. He said the board should hold several more meetings in a larger venue before making a decision.
Crouch also questioned why the railroad wasn’t willing to fund the entire project, which is estimated to cost between $250,000 to $450,000 depending on the final plans.
“Why is the tourism authority taking the lead in financing this?” he asked. “I think it’s a disgrace — the train probably makes $15 million a year — let the train finance the whole project.
Albritton said she wasn’t at liberty to say how much money the railroad makes, but said he was “way off.”
Betty Sandler said she was opposed to the closure for several reasons.
“It shows extreme favoritism to a private enterprise,” she said. “Once it’s closed, we will have no say so in it. The train will decide whether to have the park and who can go there.”
If the project does happen, she said the chamber and TDA owes it to taxpayers to demand and secure something in return for giving up the right of way.
Albritton tried to assure everyone that the railroad had full intentions of following through with the plans for a park to offer a pedestrian-friendly area available to the public for concerts and other events. She said the railroad would be looking at several sources of funding for the project and had no intentions of using TDA funds to make it happen. Lastly, she said she would be willing to address some of the residents’ concerns by putting something in writing.
“We have the best of intentions,” she said.
At the end of the hearing, Sutton told people there would be more opportunity for public input before the board voted on the closure.
“This is the first meeting, not the last, “ he said.