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Wednesday, 22 August 2007 00:00

Swain appoints members to re-configured TDA

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The restructuring of the Swain County TDA is well under way with a host of new board members appointed at the county commissioners’ Aug. 14 meeting. The selection of the new TDA differed from the previous selection process in a couple of ways — namely, the Chamber of Commerce lost its authority to appoint members (though it can still recommend people) and the number of board members increased from five to nine.

TDA profiles

Bill Talbott, vice president, Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort

Talbott’s family has lived in WNC for nearly 25 years, and his son, Brad, has been CEO of Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort since 2004. Though he hasn’t been on the TDA before, he attended meetings of the last board because he and his family “represent a fairly large business contingent,” he says. Over the course of attending TDA meetings, Talbott began to take an interest in what the county was doing with its money to promote tourism.

Though Talbott is the only representative from the motorcycle tourism sector on the TDA, he says he is not on the board to promote his personal business interests.

“I’m not on the board to promote my business personally. I’m there to promote the distribution of this money in a sensible way, and I think this new board being enlarged with some more diversity is going to be an important factor,” he says.

Of tourism in the county, Talbott says, “it’s absolutely growing.”

“I think there’s a great deal that this board can do now to further bring it along,” he says.

“I’m just happy to be a part of Western North Carolina. It’s a great, exciting part of the state and I want to be involved.”

Robin Fronrath, owner, Land’s Creek Log Cabins

Fronrath, a Florida native, has lived in Swain County for eight years and believes strongly in the county’s potential.

“I really think that this county has got everything they need to move forward to be a major tourism destination,” he says, citing the Nantahala Gorge, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and growing popularity of the Great Smoky Mountain Railway as attractions bringing people to the area.

Fronrath cautions that a developing area like Swain County needs to be careful to protect the resources currently attracting visitors. He saw his hometown ruined by an influx of tourists and hurried development.

“I come from a place where development was done wrong, and I would like to be involved in seeing it done right,” he says.

Fronrath, who served on the Swain County Economic Development Commission, is interested in going a step further than simply attracting tourists — he would like to see more people and businesses moving to the county to stay.

“I see the opportunity for clean industry, the kind of industry that people want to see,” he says. Fronrath routinely hosts large conventions for businesses at Land’s Creek Log Cabins, counting Dial Soap, Hyatt Regency Hotels and several large banks among his clients. His guests frequently compliment him on the beautiful surroundings of the area. Fronrath thinks the potential is there to attract big businesses, such as software companies, that won’t harm the environment and would boost Swain’s economy. Through increased tourism, Fronrath feels more companies will begin to discover the area as a viable place of business.

“The great thing about tourism is that it brings people to your area that are successful in business in other parts of the country, and may want to relocate their business,” he says.

Jo Mathis, owner, Almond Marina and RV Park

Mathis, a Swain County native, has operated her Fontana Lake business with her husband for more than 30 years. Her business was only the fifth to join the Chamber of Commerce — today, the organization has a membership of more than 400 businesses. Mathis says she’s seen “worlds of change,” during her time operating a business in Swain County, and she hopes her experience will be an asset to the TDA. She’s happy that she will be able to represent Fontana Lake, an area of Swain County that has sometimes been lacking promotion.

“I think that someone ought to be on the board with the Chamber that will promote the lake, though the county is doing a better job of that,” she says.

Though an influx of tourism in recent years has helped boost the county’s economy — traditionally one of the poorest in the state — Mathis thinks that luring tourists should not overshadow the needs of the local people. She says wealthy tourists who come in and drive up the price of land cause poor people to have to sell their land just to pay taxes.

“It’s really hurt the poor people of the county — and the county is so depressed anyway,” she says.

“If I can work a little bit and better the county, that’s what I want to do.”

Dena Ensley, owner, Yellow Rose Realty

Ensley and her husband have operated their real estate and vacation rental business in the county for the last 12 years. Over that time, Ensley says she has learned what does and doesn’t work in marketing the area to tourists.

The Ensleys have come up with a way to find out how each tourist hears about them. When making a reservation online, guests are required to fill out how they’ve heard about Yellow Rose Realty. Through that, Ensley has been able to see what media are effective avenues of marketing. She’s been able to determine the best locations and times of year to market to visitors.

“We’re able to track where people are getting our name from, and we can see where our money is spent wisely,” Ensley says.

Her experience will bring some perspective to the TDA on where the county’s occupancy tax revenues might be best spent.

“When you start out from scratch and you don’t have formal training, you learn a lot from trial and error,” she says.

Ensley would like more marketing efforts geared toward bringing visitors to the area.

“There’s just a small population that actually knows about Bryson City. We need to get out there and let more people know what we have to offer in the mountains,” she says.

Ensley also sees a need for the county to attract more of a year-round business, rather than seeing the bulk of visitors in the summer and fall. She says this would benefit all businesses in the area, like grocery and drug stores.

Ensley, though, wants to see the town retain its small town feel, which she says is a major reason tourists love the area.

“When people come here, they’re able to slow down just a little bit and get out of the rat race,” she says.

George Brown, owner of Fryemont Inn, refused comment for this article.


Recommended by Chamber

Carolyn Allison, Wildwater Ltd.

Allison has served on the Chamber of Commerce in some capacity for the past eight years and is currently the president. A representative of the Nantahala Gorge area, Allison is pleased with the diversity the new board offers in drawing from different businesses and areas in the county.

“I think we’ve got a really good cross section of representatives; in my opinion, a better cross section of people — more and more people who were never very heavily involved,” Allison says.

Allison would like to push for a couple of specific initiatives as a TDA member. One is to get wireless Internet service all over Bryson City. With more and more people traveling with their computers, Allison says wireless would put the town on the cutting edge of technology.

She’d also like to see the downtown build a strong retail support system.

“I look at places like Dillsboro and Waynesville and see what a wonderful mix of retail stores there are. I think we have a nice mix of restaurants, and I think we do a very good job of providing entertainment,” Allison says.

“Right now is a great opportunity for business owners to come in and open up a business. I think we’re right on the cutting edge of growth.”

Over the years, though, Allison has learned to be patient with various initiatives.

“I’ve learned after 15 years as a Swain County resident that things do take a long time, but sometimes it’s a good thing to take your time and do it right rather than rush into something.”

Connie Southard, marketing representative for Great Smoky Mountain Railway

Southard said she is honored to have been selected to the TDA board and looks forward to working with the other board members to serve Swain County. She declined further comment, saying it was premature for her to say more at this time.

Brad Walker, owner, Fairfield Inn and Suites

Walker has lived in Swain County for nearly 30 years, working at various positions in the hotel industry. He helped start the TDA and served as a member on its first board. Since then, he’s served on the board off and on. He’s excited about the changes that have taken place in the TDA structure.

“I think everything’s just positive. It’s a new way ... another era. We have more people on the board, and diversity helps. Sometimes we all forget about different areas — now it’s a more diverse board that will be able to go forward,” he says.

Walker is optimistic that the new rules giving more freedom on how the occupancy tax revenues can be spent are a positive move.

“The loosening of some of the rules so that the money can help the community and develop tourism,” is a good thing, he says.

Walker is also looking forward to the new visitor’s center, which will also house the chamber of commerce.

“I think it’s an excellent thing. I think it’s what we needed for a long time,” he says.

He also says the county could expand on its marketing campaign. With more money coming into the TDA’s coffers due to increased tourism, Walker says that this and other initiatives will be possibly. However, he cautions that money must be spent wisely.

“I believe in controlled growth. In other words, you don’t want to go wild. We’re in the right direction,” he says.

“I’m looking forward to it — it’s an evolution.”

Ron LaRocque, co-owner, Watershed Cabins

LaRocque was drawn to Swain County in 1998 after years of camping and biking in the area. He’s currently a member of the Chamber of Commerce and served for a short time on the previous TDA board.

LaRocque is surprised at how many people haven’t heard of the county, but “just haphazardly come up to us.” LaRocque would like to see the county become more of a destination, on the scale of an outdoor community like Moab, Utah. To do this, he says, the county would have to focus on the whole picture, rather than just one aspect of tourism.

“The TDA is very specifically focused on lodging because that’s obviously how they get their money. You can’t have perfect lodging without great restaurants, and you can’t have great restaurants without great shops,” he says.

LaRocque doesn’t think these kinds of places necessarily need to be brought in — rather, the potential is already there.

“I think there should be just more emphasis on helping what we have,” he says.

LaRocque cautions that the county needs to establish a pattern of smart growth in its drive to become a destination.

“The successful areas are very well planned and well thought out — that’s what I hope doesn’t go astray with this,” he says.

A change in the TDA structure will be a positive thing, although the new board should strive to continue with the previous TDA’s mission.

“With change, everybody’s always a little bit concerned. As long as change follows with smart growth,” it can be a good thing, LaRocque says.

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