In the world of Haywood County tourism, a turf battle is brewing, and the fiefdoms under fire are the county’s visitor centers.

What might seem like the friendly face of local tourism has once again become a battleground where funding dollars are the ultimate prize, and the most recent conflict has flared over Canton’s visitor center. It’s a small building, situated just off Interstate 40 on Champion Drive, in what was once a car wash. It has been closed on and off for the past year as the county’s tourism agency struggled with funding shortfalls, and is now at risk of having the plug pulled completely.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority plans to shift funding for the Canton visitor center, which sees little traffic, to a new, flagship visitor center on Main Street in downtown Waynesville with the promise of reaching more people.

Canton Mayor Pat Smathers has spoken out against the funding cut, pointing out the Canton visitor center’s proximity to I-40, making it more visible than any of the other three visitor centers in the county.

“I think a big push ought to be made to make that the premier center in the county, not just because it’s Canton, but because that’s the main corridor in the county,” said Smathers. “More visitors come in contact with I-40 than with any other place in the county and that visitors center should be a place to stop people and be able to funnel them into Maggie Valley, into Waynesville, Cruso, Canton, Clyde — everywhere in the county.”

Smathers said he’d be disappointed if the Canton center was relegated in favor of TDA’s newer Waynesville visitor center.

“I don’t know why we’re going to put more visitor centers up in Waynesville and not fund the one here on the main corridor,” Smathers said.

The visitor center isn’t Canton’s only bone to pick with the TDA. At last week’s TDA meeting, it was highlighted that a new map put out by the tourism agency showcased Waynesville and Maggie Valley as the only towns in the county. Canton didn’t even make an appearance. Neither did Clyde.

TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins defended the map, saying that listed locations were given to those who bought ad space.

 

TDA makes amends with Haywood Chamber

Canton isn’t the only visitor center to lose funding to make way for TDA’s new endeavor. The tourism agency announced it would ax $30,000 in funding a year for a Waynesville visitor center operated by the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce — diverting the money to its own visitor center instead.

While the TDA’s new visitor center will be mere blocks from the one run by the chamber, the chamber plans to keep operating its visitor center anyway — resulting in two visitor centers three blocks apart.

Pleas from the chamber of commerce not to yank its funding so suddenly convinced the TDA board to partially reverse course. The TDA board decided last week to restore partial funding to the tune of $13,000 for the coming fiscal year, but not without some dissension among board members.

TDA board member Lyndon Lowe questioned the decision, especially in light of the Canton visitor center predicament.

“Canton’s visitor center we say that we don’t have money for but we’re going to subsidize the one here?” Lowe asked fellow board members before voting against the funding.

Marion Hamel agreed, saying she would feel more comfortable with a smaller amount.

“I feel that $13,000 is putting us over the edge,” said Hamel, who represents Maggie Valley on the TDA. “I understand the rationale behind it, I just wish that it wasn’t as much money as it is.”

Jennifer Duerr, TDA board member and owner of the Windover Inn, also expressed concerns over the fairness of partial funding to the chamber for its visitor center but not Canton’s.

“If we’re going to not be making an exception for one, I’m a little uncomfortable making it for another,” said Duerr.

The measure eventually passed, though not unanimously, with Hamel, Lowe and Duerr casting the only dissenting votes.

 

Canton fate up in the air

TDA planned to pull its staff out of the Canton visitor center in May and turn it over to volunteers to run, but not enough volunteers materialized. Total closure seemed imminent, but a rescue came through from a special pot of tourism money controlled by Canton.

A portion of tourism tax dollars are divvied up between five locales in the county to use on pet projects. Canton has elected to use $3,000 from its special pool of money to staff the visitor center through July. The TDA, however, is still calling for volunteers to help work the center at other times.

TDA board members maintain that they are committed to keeping the center open and believe in its viability.

“It is our every intention to keep that visitor center open,” said Ken Stahl, a TDA board member, but he has also noted that many driving visitors find information via GPS and Web-enabled phones, rather than through traditional highway visitor centers.

Strictly by the numbers, Canton’s center ranks third out of the county’s four visitor’s centers for actual visitors, trailing the popular Balsam center and Maggie Valley’s location.

However, Haywood County Economic Development Director Mark Clasby, who sits on the TDA, said that the Canton center should be a priority for tourism in the county.

“I think it plays an important role,” said Clasby. “Before the rock slide that we had, the numbers for the Canton visitor’s center were up. I think it’s a very important geographic location.”

Canton Town Manager Al Matthews is  both the town manager in Canton and a TDA board member himself.

“The town sees the necessity and advisability of having a visitor center here,” said Matthews. “We have been working with the TDA, trying to make sure that the visitor’s center is open on a regular basis.”

The car-wash-cum-visitor’s-center may not be the only iron in the fire for Canton, though. Back in 2004, the idea for a more comprehensive visitor’s experience off I-40 in Canton was proposed, but stalled before getting funding for a feasibility study when the economy tanked two years later.

There’s talk of the concept being resurrected, however, as part of an economic development plan being crafted for the town using a grant from the N.C. Rural Center.

Matthews said that, though it’s an idea that’s on the table, it’s far too early to speculate about its practicality.

“Hypothetically that is an option, but it’s premature to say that could or should or would happen,” said Matthews.

It’s still unclear whether Canton’s current center will be able to stay open full time into the next fiscal year. Lynn Collins, TDA’s executive director, said they “were still working it out.”

Tom Robbins came out of retirement for two months to help the National Park Center open up the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

“I never thought I’d get a chance to work in the new building,” he said. “This is nice.”

Robbins, a career park employee, spent some 24 years manning the desk at the old visitor center, which was intended as “temporary,” but was in use for decades.

Among the attributes Robbins’ seemed pleased to see in the new building? The visitor center is about as environmentally friendly as it gets. The building is being nationally certified under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.

Autumn Rathbun of Trotter and Associates, an architectural firm in Gatlinburg, Tenn., that helped with the design, described some of the eco-friendly features.

“It uses quite a bit of recycled materials and regional materials,” Rathbun said. “There are also waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets.”

The toilets use a rain water-harvesting tank, set into the ground, for flushing, Rathbun explained.

And, that’s not all.

There is geothermal heat and cooling, in that the heat-pump system takes advantage of the constant 55 degrees temperature of the earth. It pumps water into the ground though tubing where it gains or gives off heat, increasing the efficiency of the system.

The building heavily relies on natural daylight, including “really cool solar tubes,” as Rathbun notes. The orientation of the building and the select placement of windows allow plenty of indirect lighting into the building.

Outside, the landscaping uses native plants, which need little watering to thrive.

“In my mind, it is a leap ahead,” said Lynda Doucette, supervisory park ranger for the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. “We wanted something that would complement the landscape.”

Doucette pointed out that part of the new building resembles the barn in the nearby Mountain Farm Museum (a collection of historic log buildings); part resembles the old house in Mountain Farm Museum.

“It does mimic the buildings on the farm,” the ranger said.

To describe the new visitor center on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a long time coming is something of an understatement.

Try some 76 years since plans were first hatched for a museum of this type, where visitors could learn about the cultural history of these mountains and the people who helped shape them. There never seemed to be enough money, and perhaps at times, enough interest, for such a visitor center to be built.

Until now, that is. The new Oconaluftee Visitor Center opened this month at the main entrance to the park just outside Cherokee, one that seems to do justice to the most-visited national park in the country.

“This is much more educational than the old one,” said Brenda Hornbuckle, who lives near Atlanta and was at the visitor center one day last week with her sister, Becky Strickland.

“I love it,” Strickland said, adding the two now plan to make another trip, and soon, so that the sisters’ grandchildren can tour the visitor center.

“This is a lot more updated and a lot bigger,” Strickland said.

And that is true: the old building, pressed into service as a “temporary” visitor center in 1948, will return to its original purpose as an administrative building for park personnel. The new 6,000-square-foot visitor center highlights Cherokee history, early settlers and mountain culture. The visitor center on the Tennessee side focuses on the mountain environment, wildlife and nature.

“There was always the intention of having a visitor center on this side of the park,” said Lynda Doucette, supervisory park ranger in Oconaluftee. “I’m just really tickled we finally have a building.”

And what a building: Built entirely from private funding for $3 million, Oconaluftee Visitor Center is, in a word, “powerful,” as Lisa Bach of Seymour, Tenn., described it. The exterior is wood and stone, very visible from nearby U.S. 441. So much so, some 1,300-1,600 people each day are stopping by — double the 600 to 800 daily visitors in the former, make-do center.

Bach said she was stunned by the building’s beauty and the quality of the presentation.

“I love it,” she said simply.

That’s exactly what people such as Holly Demuth, North Carolina director of the Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, were hoping. Demuth used words such as “topnotch” and “top quality” in describing the visitor center.

The Friends group chipped in $550,000 toward the exhibits and visitor orientation. The Great Smoky Mountains Association paid for the building and adjacent 1,700-square-foot “comfort station,” the euphemistically designated public restrooms.

“I think this signifies the role private funding can play,” Demuth said. “This has been part of the park’s plan for all those years, but the funding just wasn’t there.”

Demuth added that she believes the visitor center goes a long ways toward underscoring the increasingly important role the national park plays in North Carolina.

Relations between N.C. residents and the park haven’t always been smooth sailing. There’s lingering bitterness over the forced evacuation of farms and rural communities to make way for the park’s creation, and long-festering rancor over a road through the park that was promised to Swain County but never built.

The North Carolina entrance to the park saw three million visitors last year, less than half the number on the Tennessee-side of the park. Having a real visitor center might help attract people to this side of the park.

“We are proud to be a part of this process, of bringing a visitor center that is appropriate for bringing people into the park here in North Carolina,” Demuth said.

Shawn Byrd, a visitor from Michigan who was on his first visit to the Smokies, was suitably impressed, describing his impressions of the exhibits as “informative” and helpful to him in understanding Southern Appalachian culture and development.

Kent Cave, the park’s interpretive branch chief, would have been delighted to hear Byrd.

In a brainstorming meeting held in October 2008, Cave remembers discussing possible “themes” for the future visitor center. The folks gathered that day talked quite a bit, he said, about the need to dispel myths about mountain culture.

“We seized on an idea to show how land was used over time,” Cave said. “And we were very careful to integrate the Cherokee story throughout.”

In other words, the park story is the Cherokees’ story, too, the ranger said in explanation. Careful and meticulous attention was devoted to working with Cherokee experts on how they should tell this intertwined story, and that of the white Southern Appalachians who came to these mountains.

“I think we hit it pretty well,” Cave said.

Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, believes so, too.

“Anytime there is an opportunity for visitors to receive information about an area they discover something that they most likely never knew,” Pegg said. “If the visitors stop at the new visitor center and discover a new attraction or hike or fishing opportunity they are likely to extend their stay and in turn put more money into our economy — and that is a very good thing.”

“Pooh” Cooper Lancaster, owner of Madison’s on Main in Bryson City, and in Cherokee, Great Smoky Fine Arts and The Native American Craft Shop, said the visitor center was “desperately needed.”

“And it’s about time they’ve put a little money and building on this side of the park,” the Swain County native said. “I’m tired of Tennessee getting everything. North Carolina, as a state, has not done a good job of promoting the park.”

But with the coming of the new visitor center, Lancaster said she believes that now is truly changing.

 

Ribbon cutting

A ribbon cutting and celebration for the new visitor center at the North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday.

Less than a year after opening a new visitor center in downtown Waynesville, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce learned last week that its funding for the site is on the chopping block by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

The county tourism agency plans to open its own visitor center downtown and end its subsidy for the one run by the chamber.

The tourism agency is better positioned to operate a one-stop shop for tourists looking for things to do and see in the county, according to TDA Director Lynn Collins.

“Our sole purpose in life is to market Harwood County as a destination,” Collins said.

It makes sense for the TDA, which is in charge of branding and marketing the county, to run its own visitor center for tourists to provide a seamless message rather than contract the role out to the chamber.

“This is a good time for us to take control of our program and tell our story the way we want to tell it,” Collins said.

The chamber received $30,000 from the TDA to run a visitor center. Losing that revenue will not be easy and could mean the loss of staff, according to CeCe Hipps, the Haywood chamber’s executive director.

“Anytime an organization gets that big of a budget cut, we will have to look at how we do our day-to-day operations,” Hipps said.

The chamber says it will not shut down its visitor center, however, despite the loss of funding. A visitor center is still central to the chamber’s mission, Hipps said.

“Chambers are considered a trusted and established source of information,” Hipps said. “Regardless of the outcome of this we will maintain our visibility and maintain our visitor center. Nothing will change for us from that aspect.”

The result: two visitor centers less than three blocks apart in downtown Waynesville.

The turn of events comes as the Tourism Development Authority grapples with budget shortfalls of its own. The TDA raises money with a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging, bringing in close to $1 million a year. That money is pumped back into tourism promotions, from national advertising campaigns to mini-grants for local festivals.

As tourism has dropped with the recession, however, the TDA has seen its budget shrink by more than $200,000 in three years. This year alone, the TDA has come up $115,000 short of what it anticipated, leaving the agency struggling to make mid-year budget cuts.

“We didn’t just wake up one morning and say ‘Let’s go take the chamber’s funding away from it.’ There is a quite a bit of planning and pros and cons and up and down that when into this,” said Ken Stahl, TDA finance chair.

However, the chamber learned only last week that its visitor center funding is in jeopardy with the start of the new fiscal year come July. Such short notice will make it hard to adjust, Hipps said.

Key members of the chamber board and TDA board met last week to discuss the issue. Ron Leatherwood, the incoming president of the chamber board, said the TDA might be willing to phase out the visitor center funding over two years rather than doing it all at once. That would certainly soften the blow, he said.

The visitor center funding is more than 10 percent of the chamber’s annual budget, and it will be a challenge to make up the difference, Leatherwood said.

But Leatherwood said he understands why the TDA, which is in the tourism business after all, wants its own visitor center. If they can serve the number of visitors they hope to — 40,000 a year — it will surely be a good thing for the county, Leatherwood said.

“Hopefully it will be successful for all of us. A rising tide lifts all boats,” Leatherwood said.

 

A full-service visitor center

The TDA envisions a full-service visitor center, where tourists will be awed by an endless list of things to do in Haywood County, from crafts to fly-fishing to motorcycle rides. Not to mention a clearinghouse for all the special events going on any given weekend, something that doesn’t exist now.

“We hope to achieve a little bit of synergism here,” said Stahl.

And since the TDA lives and breathes tourism, it can best disseminate that information, Collins said.

“We have a very good handle on what is going on in the county,” Collins said.

Collins also wants their visitor center to be open seven days a week, compared to the chamber’s visitor center, which is only open on weekdays.

The TDA is negotiating a lease to house the visitor center and its administrative offices in a storefront on Main Street across from Mast General store — in the thick of the downtown action. It’s a better spot for snagging foot traffic than the chamber’s location, Stahl said.

Stahl hopes a new visitor center will catch 40,000 visitors a year compared to the 6,000 seen at the chamber’s visitor center.

“When the foot traffic is in the thousands up there on Main Street, it is an opportunity for us to reach out and touch a lot more people than what we have been for essentially the same amount of money,” Stahl said.

The chamber’s visitor center is past the courthouse in a historic home a block beyond the main shopping district. To Hipps, the location is ideal: at the corner where Russ Avenue, a main corridor into downtown, feeds into Main Street.

The chamber just moved into the building last June. It had been without a permanent home for much of the past decade, bopping from one location to another every few years. A visible spot for the visitor center was the top consideration in the quest for a permanent site.

“That was our main driver. We wanted to have a gateway into the downtown area,” Hipps said.

The chamber’s physical quarters are impressive and inviting. The stately historic brick home has a wide front porch decked out in rocking chairs. The lobby has a grand double staircase and features include hardwood floors and black-and-white checked bathroom tiles. Its interior décor is appointed with comfy sofas and lush ferns. The front lawn is crowned by stately oaks with views down Main Street.

“We wanted something that would give people a really good first impression,” Hipps said.

The chamber made a sizeable investment when signing a three-year lease on the building.

Hipps said tourists quickly make themselves at home there.

“Finding the perfect home for a visitor center was so key. Had we known this a year ago we probably would have looked at other options,” Hipps said.

 

Move in the cards

Until now, the TDA has been holed up in an obscure county office building carrying out a mostly administrative role. Few in the county could tell you where the agency was headquartered, despite its very showy mission of broadcasting Haywood’s tourism accolades to the world.

Despite a sweetheart deal — the county charged the TDA only $250 a month in rent — the TDA had been contemplating a move to new offices for a couple of years.

But it was spurred recently into action by a massive reshuffling of county office space — one that might leave the TDA with no home at all.

Most of the occupants housed in the same office building as TDA are moving to an abandoned Wal-Mart being remodeled for various county departments. The project was motivated by the need to replace the antiquated quarters of the Department of Social Services but has led to musical chairs for other county offices as well.

The county hasn’t decided yet whether TDA can stay where it is, whether it might give the space to different county departments, or whether it will sell the building.

While it’s not certain TDA will get the boot, it was enough to get the TDA’s attention.

“They have not said definitively we have to move any certain time. Their exact words from the county manager were it would be prudent for you to start looking,” Collins said.

It seemed like a good time to pull the trigger on something they wanted to do anyway.

“We don’t want to wait until the music stops and not have a chair,” Stahl said.

If the TDA is going to fork out substantially more in rent, it will cut into its already tight budget. To make it work financially, the TDA will take visitor center funding away from the chamber to cover the rent, bringing visitor enter operations in-house in the process.

“If we are going to move we want to move into something that totally completes our mission,” said Alice Aumen, chair of the TDA board.

Part of that mission is to bring the TDA to the next level as an agency.

Since the TDA’s creation 25 years ago, it has funded visitor centers run by both the Haywood chamber and Maggie Valley chamber.

While it made sense for the TDA to outsource visitor center operations in its infancy — in the early days it had no staff of its own let alone an office — it has grown into a major marketing force for tourism and needs to take a leading role in serving tourists once they arrive.

There’s another advantage to running its own visitor center: to advance marketing research, Collins said. Currently, TDA staff responsible for marketing the county don’t interface directly with the traveling public on a daily basis. Collins wants to survey visitors and find out what brought them here, where they are from, how much they are spending, who’s in the traveling party, and what they like to do.

“It helps us get to know our visitors better. We can conduct all kinds of market research to build our marketing program appropriately,” Collins said. “If you don’t have research you are flying by the seat of your pants.”

The days of shotgun advertising is over, said Aumen.

“This is a huge opportunity for us to do research on who the actual visitor is,” Aumen said.

Plus, TDA can capture the email addresses of visitors, which are worth their weight in gold for direct marketing through social media like Facebook.

While the TDA is in the business of luring visitors to the county, there’s still an advantage to engaging those who are already here.

“Even though they are already here, we can get information in their hands that would make them want to extend their stay or come back for a visit at another point in the year,” Collins said.

 

Fulfilling a mission

Before moving in to its new office last year, the chamber invited the TDA to share the space. The two entities could run a joint visitor center and share overhead expenses, Hipps suggested.

Talk of co-locating the chamber and TDA have surfaced on and off over the years, but this marked the first formal invitation to the TDA to move in together.

“We wanted to continue and strengthen our partnership and to continue to work together and collaborate,” Hipps said.

Hipps said the two entities have the same common goal, namely “to promote Haywood County.”

It’s common for chambers of commerce and county tourism agencies to share offices and staff while maintaining separate budgets. It’s done in Asheville to the east and Jackson County to the west.

But co-locating with the chamber did not fit the TDA’s mission.

While tourism is the TDA’s only focus, the chamber recruits new businesses, promotes commerce, supports entrepreneurs and engages in economic development.

“A visitor center is not their primary mission,” Stahl said.

But Hipps said tourism is integral to the county’s economy, and thus integral to the chamber’s mission.

“Our model has always been everyone in this county is connected to tourism,” Hipps said. “We can’t dissect and separate the chamber from tourism.”

That said, the chamber’s visitor center does serve as a point of contact for people moving to Haywood County, buying a second home, relocating their business, starting a new business — all of whom may have started out as just a tourist at one time.

“We are so connected with the big picture that the overall economic impact is much greater than the numbers for foot traffic that comes through the door,” Hipps said. “Our business model is all inclusive.”

The chamber’s visitor center is critical a point of contact for business inquiries, said Leatherwood. You never know when a “lone eagle” will stroll into the visitor center, for example. That term refers to a mobile professional who can do their job online from anywhere and may be seeking a new place to move, Leatherwood said.

 

A county of many visitor centers

The visitor center run by the Haywood Chamber is one of four funded by the TDA.

“We are probably the only TDA in the state that funds four visitor centers,” Stahl said.

One in Maggie Valley run by the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce gets $30,000 a year from the TDA. The other two — one at the highway rest area in Balsam and one off the interstate in Canton — are staffed by the TDA at a cost of $25,000 each.

The Canton visitor center was opened only three years ago, but tourist traffic there has not panned out. A cinderblock car wash beside a gas station was converted into a visitor center.

Faced with a budget shortfall last spring, the TDA shut the Canton visitor center for six weeks. Traffic had fallen sharply anyway due to a rockslide that shut down I-40. But even once I-40 opened again, numbers remained low. In the fall, hours were scaled back, and in January it was shut completely. The TDA plans to turn it over to volunteers with the Canton merchant association.

The visitor centers in Maggie Valley and at Balsam draw higher numbers of visitors (see chart). Neither is on the chopping block for now.

The TDA will continue funding the visitor centers that perform better, but could not justify funding those that saw such a small number of visitors, Stahl said.

Hipps said the chamber is grateful for TDA support all these years and believes the two entities will continue to work together.

“We have a very successful business model here. TDA has been a part of that success by helping to fund that part of what we do,” Hipps said.

A design has been finalized for a new $3 million visitor center at the North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Cherokee.

The new visitor center will focus on the cultural history of the park, from early Native Americans to Appalachian heritage. The park has thousands of artifacts collected from people who once lived in the park, but they are locked up in storage since the park has nowhere to display them. The new visitor center will finally put the public in touch with some of these implements of early life, from spinning wheels to farm tools to moonshine stills.

“We are going to be using those artifacts to tell the story of the people who lived here,” said Kent Cave, a park ranger who supervises visitor outreach with a specialty in Appalachian studies. “This is a fulfillment of a dream and of a promise.”

Cave said the original plan for the park dating back to the 1940s called for a cultural heritage museum on the N.C. side of the park, while the visitor center on the TN side focuses on ecology and natural history of the Smokies.

The cultural heritage theme will dovetail with the Mountain Farm Museum already in place at Occonaluftee, where visitors can see old farm buildings and demonstrations of early life.

“You aren’t just talking about the stuff, you are out there with it,” said Bob Miller, spokesperson for the park. “You can feed the chickens and talk to people about what they are seeing. This will be an extension of the farm.”

Miller said the park will judiciously select which artifacts go on display, since the park has far more than the new visitor center can possibly hold.

“A tiny portion of this stuff will be on display, just like at the Smithsonian where only a tiny portion of what they have is displayed for the public,” Miller said.

The current visitor center at Occonaluftee is old, cramped and doesn’t do justice to the most visited national park in the country.

Nearly 2 million people crossed into the park via the entrance on U.S. 441 last year, passing by the doorstep of the visitor center. Only 350,000 people ventured inside, but far more might stop in if it offered more in the way of exhibits.

The old visitors center was constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corp with the intention of serving merely as a ranger station. It is only 1,100 square feet, while the new one will be almost 7,000.

The old visitor will be converted to classroom space. The new visitor center will be constructed beside it. The parking lot will be reconfigured, along with the entrance off U.S. 441.

“We are extremely excited about having a new state-of-the-art facility,” said Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson.

Ditmanson lauded the fundraising that will pay for the entire cost of the new center.

The Great Smoky Mountains Association, which operates bookstores in the park, has committed $2.5 million for its construction. The Friends of the Smokies will provide the $500,000 to design and create all the maps, exhibits and displays.

The visitor center will meet national certification standards as an environmentally friendly building under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

“The new Center is being designed be as energy efficient and sustainable as we can make it,” Ditmanson said.

Some of the environmental designs being considered are

• Geothermal Heat and Cooling: The heating and cooling system will take advantage of the constant 55 degrees temperature of the earth, by pumping water into the ground though tubing where it will gain or give off heat, increasing the efficiency of the system.

• Passive solar: The orientation of the building and the select placement of windows will allow plenty of sunshine into the building and also provide heat. Working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Park has taken solar measurements where windows are to be placed, to be sure they are sized correctly, to allow just the right amount of light, and offset the need for heat.

• Rain water cistern: A cistern will be collect rain water from the roofs. The water will be filtered and then used to flush toilets.

• Water Saving Fixtures: Bathroom fixtures will use waterless urinals and water saving water faucets and toilets.

• Recycled Materials: Everything from roofing materials, to cabinets, siding, and structural supports will be made of recycled materials.

• Landscaping: Natives plantings will be used that will not require extensive watering after they become established.

A visitor center that would showcase the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a local heritage museum could one day occupy the Swain County historic courthouse on Everett Street if and when the senior center currently in the courthouse moves out.

The visitors center will be run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit that also runs a visitors center near the Smokemont Park entrance in Tennessee. The group has already pledged $100,000 to construct the center, according to Dan Wood, executive director of Swain County Partnership for the Future.

“They’ve been wanting a presence over on this part of the Park for a long time, and it’s a good fit right there with the Chamber of Commerce nearby,” said Wood.

Wood said the visitors center will feature five or six plasma screen televisions, one with a touch screen electronic map. The center will also house a small sandwich shop with drinks and coffee.

“We think a welcome center ... will bring more and more tourists to this area to stop by and map out their trip,” said Wood.

Wood and others had hoped to begin construction of the visitors center as early as March, but it’s now on hold indefinitely until the senior center can be relocated. Plans called for moving the senior center into a new building, but the county ran out of money to finish it.

The new senior center is being built with grant money, but the county only got half the grants it needed. Construction was launched with hopes more grant money would come through to complete it, but so far that hasn’t happened and the half-completed structure is in a holding pattern.

“Everything has ground to a halt with the senior center,” Wood said.

Wood is also reviving the idea for a Swain County history museum and heritage center to occupy the historic courthouse.

The idea has been tossed around for years. Initial plans called for the museum to focus on Swain County stories of national significance, including the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the creation of Fontana Lake, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the region’s natural history.

A three-year planning process identified stories to be highlighted and work collecting oral histories was completed. A cost estimate was done, putting the total project cost at $1.5 million.

“Then, it kind of fell into a black hole of nothingness,” Wood said of the project. “Until I got here about a year ago, nothing had been done since 2004.”

Wood said arranging a move for the senior center has held up the process of planning for a visitors center and museum, which has been admittedly slow.

“Things move like a glacier,” he said. “But now, we’ve started to get money. I’ve written two separate grants (for the visitors center), and they both look good.”

Wood said the museum is likely at least two years from completion.

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