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Wednesday, 08 June 2011 19:45

Money available for railroad, if commissioners ink deal

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No actual decision was made, but County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners this week that they have $95,176 set aside in the budget if they want to give the money, as requested, to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

The money would go toward fixing up a steam engine the railroad bought that is currently sitting in Maine. In February, the privately owned business asked for $817,176 in the form of a loan and a grant from Jackson County. A few weeks later, the railroad amended that request to ask for $95,176 in cash and $322,000 in the form of a loan.

Now the loan part is gone, and the railroad just wants cold, hard cash from Jackson County.

That’s because if the railroad did get a loan from the county, it might well be forced to immediately pay back another federal loan because of an agreed upon debt-equity ratio, Wooten said.

Businessman Al Harper owns the railroad. Until 2008, Dillsboro served as the headquarters of the railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train moved its administrative office and main depot to Bryson City. Dillsboro languished in the wake of that decision. Last year, and even more this year, the railroad did begin limited, seasonal excursions out of Dillsboro again.

With the steam engine, Harper is promising to run service out of Dillsboro two to three days per week in June, July and August, and three to four days out of the week in October.

Additionally, the railroad promises during November and December for the popular Polar Express to originate out of the tourism-dependent town.

“If there is sufficient passenger demand then (the) number of days could be increased,” Wooten noted. “There will also be trips on the steam engine originating out of Bryson City with a stopover in Dillsboro.”

Swain County and the Swain County Travel and Tourism Authority each have already kicked in $25,000, for a total of $50,000, to the railroad.

A decision by commissioners in Jackson County won’t be made until the steam engine is physically located in Western North Carolina from Maine, Wooten said.

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