Merchants near the entrance to the park in nearby Cherokee were elated by the news Monday.
“It’s wonderful,” said Charlie Saunooke, owner of Saunooke Mill, joking that he had a ribbon and giant pair of scissors ready specifically for the occasion.
The landslide was a major blow to the tourist economy in Cherokee for the past three months as the flow of visitors coming over the mountain from Tennessee dried up.
Saunooke estimated that the closure of U.S. 441 brought business down 80 percent compared to average years. When Saunooke reopened for the spring a couple of weeks ago, he hired only two employees compared to the normal four or five for this time of year.
He also opened his store later in the year than he typically does, and he isn’t the only one.
Sam Ball, owner of the Little Princess Restaurant in Cherokee, opened his doors for the season just last week instead of the usual mid-March kickoff.
“Our life’s blood comes from that mountain,” Ball said.
Since its creation in the 1930s, the national park has been a tourist magnet. It sees more than nine million visitors annually, making it the most visited national park in the nation.
And the region’s economy — especially Cherokee, so keenly positioned at the Smokies’ main North Carolina entrance — depends on the visitors flowing through it.
“We couldn’t survive without it,” Ball said. “It’s just like turning off a spigot.”
The landslide was particularly disheartening to Brenda Welch, who bought The Tepee gift shop in January just before the slide.
“My luck,” Welch said. “We were all just freakin’ when that happened.”
But she is hoping that her bottom line will improve this weekend now that road is open once again.
“We are really hoping we will get busy, busy,” Welch said.
Business owners weren’t the only ones watching and waiting for the road to reopen. Hikers who frequent the Smokies have been blocked from easily reaching their favorite trails without a lengthy detour. And would-be tourists have been wondering whether their vacation plans for the Smokies would be a go this year.
“People do make decisions on where they travel when they hear a road is closed,” Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said.
Indeed, Dennis Ledet of Louisiana was relieved this week to hear the road would be open in time for his biannual trip to the Smoky Mountains, a pilgrimage he makes twice a year in May and October.
“I just enjoy it up there,” Ledet said.
However, Ledet was concerned the road closure would inconvenience him since he plans to stay in Gatlinburg but wanted to travel over to Cherokee to golf and sightsee.
“It was going to take a little longer if you got to go all the way around,” Ledet said.
Visitation numbers for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park show that considerably fewer people ventured into the park from January thru March than normal. Visitation was clocked at 983,664 people for the first three months of 2013 — a more than 47 percent decline compared to the average visitation during the last five years, according to park statistics.
Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks estimates that more than $1 million in revenue was lost by businesses in Cherokee during the three-month road closure.
U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, has been a champion of fast action to get the road reopened. He’s visited the site during its closure and was on hand for a press conference Monday when the road opening was announced.
The goal was to have the road reopened by mid-May when the tourist season starts to hit its summer stride. But some tourist-dependent businesses may not have been able to hold out that long with such a hit to their revenue, Meadows said.
“We would have had businesses closing. We would have had people hurting,” Meadows said.
Lighting a fire
The biggest, most pleasant surprise was not just that the road is now open, but that it is opening a month before schedule.
Phillips and Jordan, a national construction firm from Robbinsville that specializes in large-scale public works jobs, was hired in February to rebuild the destroyed section of U.S. 441. The contract for the job was $4 million. But it came with both a carrot and a stick.
Phillips and Jordan could earn an extra $18,000 a day for every day repairs are completed before the deadline. But for every day they went past May 15, $18,000 would be deducted from their contract.
The bonus for finishing early was capped at $500,000 — or four weeks early. Phillips and Jordan will get the full $500,000.
“My hats off” to Phillips and Jordan, said Meadows.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians agreed to put up half the money for the bonus and the federal government put up the other half.
Hicks also lauded Phillips and Jordan for getting the job done quickly.
“I am sure the incentive had nothing to do with it,” Hicks joked.
It was money well spent, according to Hicks and Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson.
Now, Cherokee business owners and the tribe will not miss out on tourism revenues.
“The repayment to our local community and local economy is wonderful,” Ditmanson said.
The tribe tossed in its share of the incentive to mitigate the economic impact on businesses in Cherokee, particularly Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.
Business owner Saunooke said he was happy that the tribe and park service took the initiative and offered an incentive for finishing early. And in spite of his feelings toward the park service, he gave them a little praise.
“I don’t like the park service. I fought hard with them all my life. I was impressed,” he said.
Why U.S. 441 closed
Western North Carolina was hit by several days of heavy rainfall in January, causing flash flooding and landslides throughout the region.
One landslide collapsed a section of U.S. 441 through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, about six miles past the main North Carolina entrance to the park outside Cherokee. The mountainside washed away, leaving a gaping chasm about the length of a football field where the road used to be.
U.S. 441 is the primary artery through the national park between Gatlinburg to Cherokee. Sightseers on the North Carolina side of the Smokies were cutoff from much of the park, and tourists from the Tennessee side couldn’t easily reach Cherokee without a major detour.