“It’s scary,” said Elizabeth Williamson, owner of Mountain Diva, a women’s boutique. “It’s just a bad year.”
Williamson added that her own business has been OK because she has a group of repeat customers.
If more businesses are forced to close, the outcome could negatively affect other shops in Dillsboro and create a cyclical effect. Fewer tourists equal fewer stores, which could lead to the loss of even more tourism dollars.
“It’s definitely not a good thing,” said Linda Fuqua, owner of Cheddar Box Country Store. “You need businesses to bring people.”
Bradley’s General Store owner and Dillsboro Alderman David Gates described his business as “very slow.” Bradley’s serves up the tourist essentials of hand dipped shakes, postcards and souvenir T-shirts — but has put the business up for sale.
“Ever since the railroad pulled out of Dillsboro, it’s been going down every since,” Gates said.
Some shops are still doing fine, however, particularly Dillsboro’s art gallery scene that isn’t as dependent on happenstance foot traffic.
Other business owners have pinpointed the departure of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad as the culprit of Dillsboro’s economic downturn in addition to the recession. Tourists used to flood into Dillsboro each year to ride the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad to Bryson City in Swain County or Cherokee. Each year, 180,000 people ride the privately owned railroad, according to the company.
The train was a boon for the town, with passengers lingering and loitering around town while waiting to embark or after their trip. But, in 2005, owner Al Harper decided to move the train’s main hub to Bryson City.
“Every since the train has gone, tourism has gone down quite a bit,” said Mayor Mike Fitzgerald. “There is no big draw to the town.”
The train still comes into Dillsboro for a 90-minute layover but only once a day Tuesday thru Friday and even less when the summer tourism season draws to a close.
Video sweepstakes a no-go in Dillsboro
Recently, in an attempt to draw more business to Dillsboro, Harper decided to rent the train depot to a company that wanted to install video sweepstakes machines in the building.
“Anything that brings bodies to Dillsboro where people eat, shop and use that facility is a good thing. We need traffic in Dillsboro,” Harper said. “We need customers to come into the shops and ride the train. So if gaming will attract some people everyday and put people on the ground in Dillsboro, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
The machines are akin to video gambling, however, and remain controversial. Harper added that it is everyone’s personal choice whether to play the machines or not.
At least 30 sweepstakes machines were housed in the train depot for about a month before the company discontinued its operations.
“I don’t know why they are leaving,” Fitzgerald said, adding that he never saw many cars in the parking lot.
Fitzgerald said many business owners and residents didn’t like the presence of video gaming in town — even though the town stood to make a tidy windfall by taxing the machines had the operation stuck around.
“Our small town is a family town. There are limits to what we would do for money,” Fitzgerald said. “I think they would probably chose to continue on and struggle.”
While Dillsboro’s town budget of a meager $200,000 certainly could have used an infusion from fees levied against the sweepstakes machines, some feel that allowing sweepstakes machines could mar the tiny Jackson County town’s image.
“It’s not what Dillsboro is. It’s a quiet little town,” said Katie Brooks, who works in Dillsboro.
However, until Dillsboro passes an ordinance restricting video gaming, such businesses could crop up in town whether residents like it or not, which is not a concern for at least one alderman.
“It’s a business, and the world’s going to change, and they are going to be around,” Gates said. “I don’t have a problem with it.”
The town planning board is currently drafting an ordinance that would set standards such as hours of operation, licensing fees and distance requirements from churches and schools. Dillsboro leaders hope to have something in place by the end of August.