A 200-foot section of U.S. 441 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park collapsed in a landslide during a week of heavy rainfall last month, forcing the park service to close the road, which serves as the main artery for motorists traveling from Tennessee to Cherokee.
The park estimated the $3 million to $7 million repair job would likely take until mid- to late May.
To give the contractor a kick in the rear, the Eastern Band and National Park Service have announced that they will pay $18,000 for every day repairs are completed before May 15. Together, they will dole out up to $500,000.
However, if the company does not finish the project on time, it will cost. The contract with the park service will charge the contractor $18,000 for every day repairs go past May 15.
Business leaders in Cherokee were glad that both entities are taking a proactive approach to ensure that U.S. 441 reopens in time for the main tourist season.
“That pleases me. It certainly benefits our merchants to have the road open as early as possible,” said Amy Watkins Parker, executive director of Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.
February is typically a slow tourism month for Western North Carolina, but the closure of U.S. 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has brought business in Cherokee to a slow drip.
Kay Sharpe has owned a business in Cherokee since 1966 and has dealt with road closures during heavy snow in the past. But it doesn’t compare to the effects the recent landslide has had thus far, she said.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” said Sharpe, owner of Medicine Man Crafts. “That is not some Podunk road through the park.”
Business has declined during the last four years, Sharpe said, so every penny counts. Since the road has closed, Medicine Man Crafts has only seen a few customers a week.
“I’ve had weeks go by and maybe take in $20,” she said.
The fact that the tribe and the park service has offered up to $500,000 as motivation for workers to finish the road repairs earlier shows just how important the route is to Cherokee’s economy, Sharpe said.
“It affects the whole reservation,” she said.
Other Cherokee business owners and employees were less sure of the impact that the U.S. 441 closures had on their establishments so far since winter is never booming.
“This time of year it’s really hard to measure because it’s so affected by the weather,” said George Ware, owner of the Chalet Suites. But business is “not as good as it’s been the previous two years,” he added.
March and April, when the spring tourism season starts, will be the real test to see how Chalet Suites fares, Ware said. So, in the hopes of enticing customers, they are offering specials.
“We are doing as much as we can,” Ware said. “Hopefully, we will all get through it.”
Since U.S. 441 is no longer an option for travelers coming from Tennessee to Cherokee, tourists who still want to make a trip to Cherokee must drive an additional 45 to 60 minutes.
And some are, said Vicki Cruz, manager of Qualla Arts and Crafts. Every time a customer enters the store, employees ask where they’ve traveled from, and Cruz has spoken to a few people who have taken the extra time.
“If they are wanting to come to Cherokee, they are going to go the alternative route,” Cruz said.