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Planning board officials recommended and the Canton Board of Aldermen/women approved plans that will bring an additional 7,000 square feet of retail space to the town’s rapidly growing Champion Drive corridor just south of Interstate 40.

haywoodHaywood County commissioners have endorsed a plan to run sewer lines out N.C. 209 to Interstate 40, pledging $300,000 toward the $3 million project should state grant funding for the new sewer line come through.

Interstate 40 near the Tennessee line in Haywood County reopened early Sunday morning following two rockslides in as many weeks. Only one lane of the Interstate is open through the Pigeon River Gorge near the state line, however.

Following the initial rockslide at mile marker 451 in Tennessee, about one mile from the North Carolina state border on Jan. 31, a second rockslide occurred on Feb. 3 near mile marker 7 in North Carolina.

The westbound lanes of the Interstate in Haywood County were closed to traffic for only six days — shorter than earlier estimates and far shorter than a five-month closure two years ago.

The latest slide left 600 tons of rock in the roadway, with some boulders the size of small cars.

N.C. Department of Transportation crews, with help from Ameritech Slope Constructors Inc. of Asheville, removed an additional 150 tons of loose rock from the mountainside and hauled off the debris from the road by the late afternoon Sunday. The site is now clear and safe for travel.

A rockslide has shut down a portion of Interstate 40 in Haywood County for up to two weeks.

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, a rockslide occurred near mile marker 451 in Tennessee, about one mile from the North Carolina border. Unlike the two major landslides in the past 15 years, which caused major problems for businesses in Haywood County, this most recent slide was contained to the shoulder of the road.

“It doesn’t look anywhere near as extensive as the major rock slides years ago,” said Mark Nagi, a community relations officer for Tennessee DOT.

It is unclear what or how big an effect the rockslide will have on businesses in Haywood County.

“That is just something that we can’t answer at this point in time,” said CeCe Hipps, president of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. “Hopefully, this will not have a big effect on business in Haywood County.”

For now, county tourism leaders are spreading the word that Interstate 40 is still open near Waynesville, Maggie Valley, Canton and Clyde.

“We are just thinking how to keep the doors open,” Hipps said.

The Haywood County and Maggie chambers and the Tourism Development Authority have emailed businesses and posted information on their websites about the slide and encouraged visitors not to cancel their plans.

“We want to make sure that people are not deterred,” Hipps said.

Winter means a slower tourist season for most of the area, which gets a majority of its tourism business in the summer and fall. However, Cataloochee Ski Area is one of the local attractions that could be negatively impacted by the natural disaster as people will have to tack on extra travel time.

“The route to Maggie Valley is still open,” said Teresa Smith, executive director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Hopefully, the customer base at Cataloochee will add on that extra time.”

The North Carolina Department of Transportation is stopping motorists at Exit 20 near Jonathan Creek in Haywood County and are directing them to an alternative route through Asheville using I-26.

Anywhere between 20,000 and 25,000 vehicles travel the closed stretch of Interstate 40 each day.

As of late Tuesday morning, no traffic delays had been reported, according to NCDOT.

There is no official cause of the slide, but Nagi said the recent freeze and thaw of temperatures played a part.

“That contributed I’m sure at least in some way,” he said.

TDOT is still analyzing the slide and deciding how to clean it up. The night prevented officials beginning the process sooner.

“We had to wait for the sun to start rising before we could get a good look at everything,” Nagi said.

In late 2009, a rockslide shut down a section of Interstate 40 for about six months. Haywood County businesses saw a stark decline in customers as a result because travelers coming from the west were forced to tack more than 70 miles onto their trip.

 

A long detour

To Tennessee: The official detour around the closed portion of I-40 sends people north from Asheville on I-26 to Johnson City, Tenn. and finally onto I-81 South to get back to I-40. The trip adds an extra 70 miles to the trip.

Plows miss part of I-40

Motorists beware: a no man’s land at exit 37 on Interstate 40 may not be plowed and salted in bad weather with the same regularity as the rest of the highway.

The stretch in question lies near the Haywood-Buncombe county line, where a few hundred yards of the Interstate are occasionally overlooked. Plows and salt trucks coming from opposite directions — one crew from Haywood and another from Buncombe — use exit 37 as a natural turn-around point before heading back the other way.

“Essentially the county line is within a few hundred feet,” said Ed Green, the Department of Transportation maintenance engineer for Division 13, a seven-county area that includes Buncombe.

But there is a short stretch of Interstate between the exit ramp and the on ramp — including a bridge over the road below — that gets missed.

“Who does the bridge?” Green said in response. “I am not sure about who does that. At some point, some of them overlap, but they may not do it every time depending on how bad conditions are.”

One crew or the other has to overshoot exit 37 to avoid leaving a gap. Since the bridge has no shoulders, going past the exit in order to hit the bridge and then backing up isn’t an option.

“That’s too dangerous,” said Ben Williams, DOT maintenance supervisor in Haywood County. “The only way to do it is run past it.”

But when Haywood’s trucks overshoot exit 37, they have to continue for several miles to the truck weigh station before they can turn around. If Buncombe’s trucks overshoot exit 37, they can’t turn around until exit 33.

And that’s exactly what they do — most of the time that is, according to Chad Bandy, DOT maintenance supervisor in Buncombe County.

“A lot of times what we’ll do is go into Haywood County some, and they come into Buncombe County some,” said Bandy.

But occasionally, it gets skipped.

The territory around exit 37 lies on Buncombe’s side of the county line and is technically Buncombe’s responsibility — not Haywood’s. Plow and salt truck drivers coming from Buncombe decide whether to turn around at exit 37 or keep going to exit 33 “as conditions warrant,” Bandy said.

One Tuesday morning in early February there were two wrecks due to ice on the exit 37 bridge — one on each side of the Interstate, according to accident reports by the N.C. Highway Patrol.

That morning, Buncombe crews plowing and salting the road passed over the bridge only every other trip, Bandy said. The other trips, they turned around at exit 37 and didn’t proceed over the bridge all the way to the county line.

Mary Clayton, who commutes daily to Haywood Regional Medical Center from Buncombe County, said ice on the bridge threw her for a loop that morning.

“I didn’t even realize the weather was bad or the roads were bad. Then I hit the bridge and as soon as I hit the ice, well, I lost it,” Clayton said.

In all fairness, there were other weather-related wrecks on I-40 near exit 37 that morning as well, but not on the section that lies in no man’s land.

“There was one, two, three, four, five, six wrecks near the 37,” said Jennifer Hodge, an office assistant for the North Carolina Highway Patrol in Buncombe County.

Four of those six wrecks were due to icy roads, according to the accident reports. Two were on the bridge, which lies inside the no man’s land, while two were just east of it — indicating that the road was icy in other areas too, and that less-than-diligent plowing of the bridge isn’t necessarily to blame.

I-40 is a priority for Buncombe plow and salt trucks. Two drivers are assigned to the Interstate and make continual passes the duration of a snowstorm.

But there’s no log that shows how often Buncombe’s trucks turn around at exit 37, skipping the bridge in the process, versus continuing on to exit 33.

“We don’t keep a record of every trip the truck makes,” Bandy said.

 

Highway Patrol lodges concerns

Inconsistent plowing at exit 37 hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Between Haywood and Buncombe is kind of a no-man’s land,” N.C. Highway Patrol Sergeant Henley said. “Buncombe handles one side and Haywood handles the other.”

Motorists who commute regularly have noticed in the past that the stretch between the exit ramp and on ramp can be snowier than the rest of the interstate.

It was such a problem last winter that the Highway Patrol held a meeting with Buncombe County DOT maintenance workers this fall to discuss it before another winter hit.

“It was addressed with them and they assured us it would be taken care of,” Henley said.

Bandy said he remembered the meeting, but not that particular topic.

“I mean, yeah, we talked about, you know, a lot of things with snow and ice,” Bandy said.

But he didn’t remember concerns about exit 37 specifically.

“Not that I recall, but there may have,” Bandy said. “I don’t remember that particular one, but it may have come up.”

Henley recalls it clearly, however. He said the Buncombe DOT workers assured troopers that they had a protocol for dealing with exit 37.

However, that protocol remains difficult to ferret out.

Green, who initially said “I am not sure who is doing what out there” pledged to look into it. A few days later, after talking to Bandy, he reported back.

“I talked to our folks and found out they are treating it. They go all the way to 33. Not every time but most of the time,” Green said. “They assured me it was being taken care of.”

When asked whether the Buncombe and Haywood maintenance units call each other ahead of time to coordinate who will do the bridge, the answer was “no.”

“We don’t,” Bandy said. But, “during the event as conditions warrant, we do talk to each other,” he added.

Ben Williams, the maintenance supervisor in Haywood County, confirmed that the two units don’t call each other to coordinate ahead of time.

“Sometimes it depends on who gets there first. If it is there and it needs pushing we’ll do it,” Williams said. “We are very fluid.”

Bandy and Green said it makes more sense to let the plow drivers make that decision on the ground, since it depends on timing of who arrives there first and how bad the road is.

“They are not really going to know until they get there,” said Green.

However, that’s not the impression Henley was given at the meeting last fall when troopers asked about a protocol for making sure the stretch wasn’t forgotten.

“They kind of assured us they had one,” Henley said.

Henley said it would be preferable for crews to decide prior to a storm who would do it.

Bandy and Williams, the maintenance supervisors in Buncombe and Haywood respectively, both referred to each other as friends, and even talked to each other in between interviews for this article. As friends, it may be one reason they don’t feel an official protocol is necessary.

“Ben and his counterpart in Buncombe are good friends, and I am sure they have it worked out,” said Mark Gibbs, the maintenance engineer for DOT’s Division 14, a 10-county area that includes Haywood County.

It could also explain why Williams would send Haywood County trucks into Buncombe County simply to be a good neighbor, despite struggling with not enough money for snow removal in his own county.

Gibbs said he has never asked Williams how the stretch at exit 37 is handled. He travels the section of I-40 every morning on his commute to Sylva. This is the first winter he has been making the commute, but has never noticed a problem.

“Every time I have been through there, there has been very little transition between the two lines,” Williams said. “The coordination of both counties, even though it is across Division lines, seems to work fairly well.”

Canton will be opening its doors to new business when a long-awaited upgrade to its Champion Drive sewer line is completed next year.

The update, which town officials say has been on the list of top priorities for several years, will cost $1.2 million and should take a little more than a year to complete.

Town Manager Al Matthews said that the current system is already overtaxed, and that’s preventing potential new businesses to set up shop in the corridor that runs from Interstate 40 into downtown Canton along Champion Drive.

“The line is drastically undersized for the new growth and development along Champion Drive,” said Matthews. “It [the upgrade] is a fairly broad-reaching economic development tool as well as meeting those needs that are in existence now.”

According to Matthews, the current line is at such capacity right now that even existing businesses in the area are unable to expand and maintain sewer service.

Once the larger line is in place, however, it will serve the new livestock market and provide capacity for both business expansion and new businesses alike.

The crux of the problem, said Matthews, is an over-extension of the line’s original intent. For example, the portion that serves the multitude of businesses between Sagebrush Steakhouse and Arby’s was only originally intended to serve the steak restaurant. But when Canton saw explosive growth along the road, the sewer capacity didn’t expand along with it.

Now, with the birth of a new urgent care center on the road imminent, appropriate sewage capabilities are urgently needed.

As Matthews said, the concept has been bandied about for some time, with the idea being that larger, big-box stores may look to Canton – almost equidistant between Waynesville and Asheville – as the prime location to draw shoppers from the outskirts of both cities. The industrial park that is also tied onto the line is another prime candidate for expansion and additional business creation.

Now, said Matthews, the area will once again have the trifecta necessary for new building of any kind – open real estate, water services and sewer capabilities.

Funding will be coming from several different sources, including a $100,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation and a $600,000 grant from the N.C. Rural Center. Matthews said the county has agreed to pay a share of the costs, though to what extent is as yet unclear.

County Commissioner Kevin Ensley expressed support for the project, deeming it beneficial for the whole of the county in terms of economic growth and development.

“When a sewer line goes in, then business will follow,” said Ensley.

Work on the improvements is slated to begin within months, said Matthews, who hopes to have a permit for the construction in hand within 60 days.

I-40 opens at last

Interstate 40, closed since October due to a massive rockslide, reopened with little fanfare on Sunday evening. For the people who depend on the road for their living, seeing the traffic flow again brought a sense of relief.

“We are thrilled to death,” said Mike Sorrells, owner of Sorrell’s Marathon and Auto Repair in Jonathan Creek. “You do not know how much that road means to your well-being until it’s not there.”

The work on I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge will continue through the summer as crews complete stabilization efforts, but with both eastbound lanes and one westbound lane open, Western North Carolina’s main transportation artery is back in business.

The total cost for the repair project, initially slated for completion in February, is estimated to be $12.9 million, and according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the federal government will cover nearly 100 percent of the cost.

For business owners like Sorrells, though, there is no way to recover what was lost. They watched with horror as the timetable for the road opening was pushed back due to poor weather conditions.

“It looked like this thing was going to get opened in February, and it was like a blow to the stomach when we learned it wouldn’t be until late April,” Sorrells said.

The economic effects of the I-40 rockslide have been a source of attention ever since the road was closed. In March, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced that it would hand out $1.4 million in loans to businesses affected by the slide, but the money was spread over the region from Asheville to Sevierville, Tenn.

Before the rockslide, about 19,000 vehicles a day traveled on the road, and almost half of them were trucks. Businesses that directly relied on the commercial traffic, like gas stations and hotels have been hardest hit by the closure.

Sorrells said he was forced to lay off weekend staff as his sales of gas and tires plummeted.

“We survived,” Sorrells said. “It was very difficult. You really saw the fall-off on the weekends.”

Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said the road reopened just in time for the summer tourism season.

“We’re thrilled obviously,” Collins said. “We have a lot of special events, beginning with this weekend, and hopefully we’ll have a good attendance with the road being opened.”

Still, the authority’s numbers have been bleak during the closure. Occupancy tax numbers were down 25 percent in the month of January from 2009 and 7 percent to date for the year. The numbers of walk-in visitors at the Canton Visitor Center were even more stark, only half of what they were a year ago through March.

Collins said the low numbers in January and February were likely the result of the weather, the economy, and the road closure.

Until the road reopened, eastbound travelers were detoured to I-26 on a route that added 53 miles and nearly an hour of driving time. The detour was not enough to stop skiers from visiting Cataloochee Ski Area, which enjoyed a successful winter season this year.

“We had a good season and the folks from Knoxville were able to get to us,” said Tammy Brown, Cataloochee’s marketing director. “We found that by offering differing routes, folks were able to deal with it.”

Brown attributed Cataloochee’s success to a great winter of natural snow and ideal conditions for snowmaking. The fact that the ski area did so well showed that the closure of I-40 was not a death sentence for tourism-based businesses on its own.

Traffic was also up in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which experienced a 5 percent increase in visitors over last year, primarily because U.S. 441 through the park offered an alternative route across the mountains.

While the interstate opened officially on Sunday, the work to stabilize the rockslide area will continue through the summer as crews complete the installation of rock bolts and anchor mesh at five separate sites. Both eastbound lanes are open, but one westbound will remain closed for about three miles and westbound truck traffic is restricted.

In a record year for landslides, yet another one struck this week, this time along U.S. 441 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The slide occurred Monday near Newfound Gap, about a mile from the Tennessee state line. One lane of the road is open to traffic. The park hopes to reopen two lanes by commandeering a portion of an overlook parking area for a travel lane.

U.S. 441 between Cherokee and Gatlinburg is one of the only routes between North Carolina and Tennessee that is passable. Three other highways between the two states are closed due to rockslides of their own.

• Interstate 40 has been closed for five months now near the state line.

• U.S. 64, which runs between Murphy and Chattanooga, is also closed due to a rockslide.

• U.S. 129, which leads from Robbinsville to Maryville, Tenn., is also closed due to a rockslide.

There have been four other landslides in the region: a major one in Maggie Valley that forced an evacuation of several homes, one that took out a road and a lot in the Water Dance development in Jackson County, one that took out a road and a lot in the Wildflower development in Macon County, and one in Macon County that could be partly to blame for destabilizing a home foundation.

Moreover, there have been two more rockslides on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The U.S. Small Business Administration plans to hand over more than $1.4 million in disaster relief loans to a host of unlikely recipients in the region.

The low-interest loans are meant to aid businesses distressed by a rockslide that shut down a section of Interstate 40 in Haywood County since October.

Many of the 15 businesses that have received loans so far are hotels, motels and restaurants found far from the interstate. Others don’t appear to be tourism-related businesses at all, making it hard to figure how a drop in the traveling public on I-40 would have hurt their bottom line.

Becky & Jaime’s Water’N Hole, a bar in Waynesville, will receive $17,300 in federal money.

Asheville’s Fun Depot, which offers go-carts, laser tag and mini-golf, will get $87,800 in loans.

And Falin Excavating in Sevierville, Tenn. — more than 35 miles away from where Interstate 40 is blocked off — has received the most out of any business so far: $333,200.

SBA spokesman Matt Young pointed out that the economic impact is far more widespread than one might think.

“You can have counties north of Haywood, south, east or west,” said Young. “They all could have been impacted because of their inability to have access to Interstate 40.”

County lines mean little when it comes to doing business, Young added. Businesses on either side of the closed road may have lost access to suppliers, for example.

Young would not provide the names of businesses that were denied a loan.

A pervasive impact

Dave Day, owner of Asheville’s Fun Depot and the adjacent Brookstone Lodge, received SBA loans for both businesses.

Day said sales have dropped by 10 percent because of the rockslide, and his businesses have suffered the loss of lucrative bus groups that often stop by.

“It’s not like I was going to go out of business, but it definitely had an effect on the business when your sales drop off,” said Day.

With an ailing economy already hurting sales, businesses have had the extra burden of proving their financial loss was caused particularly by the rockslide.

Since Day keeps a tally of where his customers come from, he was able to show the SBA a drop-off of customers from Tennessee.

Hotel manager Teresa Smith said she’s likewise seen a plunge in Tennessee travelers venturing to Maggie Valley since the rockslide occurred.

Smith is general manager of the Maggie Valley Inn, one of the few clear-cut cases of a tourism-based business in the actual vicinity of the slide.

On a recent weekend, only 12 out of 110 rooms at the hotel were occupied. During the same weekend last year, 28 rooms were full.

“Certainly [the loans are] going to help keep us afloat through the rest of the winter,” said Smith. “March and April are even typically slower than December, January and February because skiing is over with.”

Smith said though above average snowfall has brought a greater influx of skiers to Maggie Valley, the inn has had to cut back on its already skeletal wintertime crew.

Smith not only handles her regular duties but also mans the front desk and answers phones — tasks that would usually be divvied between two employees.

Even though the inn is approved for loans, they haven’t received one lump sum, Smith said. The SBA is doling it out a little at a time.

Loan or no loan, it’s clear that most businesses in Maggie Valley have all been affected by the rockslide.

“You can just ride up and down the road in Maggie Valley and look at how many cars are in each of the businesses,” said Smith, who also serves as president of Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “You get a good feel for what everyone’s going through.”

Harsh winter weather has delayed the reopening of Interstate 40 until late April, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Snow, rain, heavy winds and bitter cold shut down operations for a total of 14 days, leading to the delay.

“The weather has been the only reason,” said Jon Nance, chief engineer of operations for the DOT. “The contractor has been very aggressive.”

The DOT initially stated the cleanup would take about three months shortly after a massive rockslide buried the interstate near the Tennessee border on Oct. 25.

Following a closer look, the DOT shifted its target for reopening to March, but warned the cleanup could take as long as May.

The cost of repairing the rockslide’s impact remains $10 million, at the upper limit of the original estimate.

Dean Kirkpatrick, owner of Dean’s Haywood Café near exit 24 of Interstate 40, said he’s disappointed about the delay but understands the reasoning behind it.

Kirkpatrick often interacts with I-40 workers who regularly visit his restaurant and give him the latest updates.

“We appreciate all of them, the road crews, the bridge crews, working day and night,” said Kirkpatrick.

Still, Kirkpatrick admits that January and February have been the two toughest months he can remember in his 40 years of business.

While it’s been months since the DOT shut down the Interstate near his business, Kirkpatrick holds no grudges against the agency.

“They are anxious to get it open just as much as we are,” said Kirkpatrick. “I’m sure they’re getting a lot of flack.”

Businesses that rely on the interstate for tourism are also eagerly anticipating the road’s reopening. Tourism in the region usually starts picking up in April, according to Lynn Collins, director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

But Collins said the first priority is to make roads safe for travelers.

The DOT has been cooperative changing its signs to let travelers know they can still access Western North Carolina regardless of the road closure, according to Collins. They’ve even placed one such sign in South Carolina, Collins added.

According to the DOT, about 25 inches of snow fell between December and February, a 250 percent increase over the historic average of 10 inches.

Seventeen inches of rain fell on the area during the same period, about a 30 percent increase over the historic average of 13 inches.

In spite of the tough weather, contractors have cleared a rock mass 60 feet wide, 80 feet tall and 20 feet thick — the size of a small apartment building — and are working on installing 590 rock bolts to stabilize the mountainside.

Crews have drilled 230 holes and have installed 125 as of Monday. Drilling for the bolts has been underway for more than seven weeks, but they have finished only a third of the work.

Some bolts are more than 100 feet long. In particularly steep sections of the rock face, bolts must be lowered in place by a helicopter while men in harnesses guide them into place. The bolting process can continue once the Interstate reopens.

The DOT has taken advantage of the 20-mile road closure to work on maintenance projects, including paving tunnels, repairs to four bridges, tree and brush maintenance and slope mowing along the corridor — all of which has amounted to $5.3 million in investments.

“We have not been sitting idly by,” said Nance. “We have done a lot of work.”

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