Swain County has now been targeted as part of a regional effort to drum up financial support for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s steam engine dreams.
Dillsboro officials are leading the charge, already courting Jackson County to make loans or grants for the railroad, and is now asking Swain County to participate as well.
Two members of the Dillsboro town board, David Gates and Tim Parris, addressed the Swain County commissioners last week to discuss the possibility of joining forces to either loan money or pony up cash to help the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad expand its operations.
Specifically, the tourist railroad wants to transport a 1913 Swedish steam engine from Maine to Western North Carolina and build two engine turntables necessary for its operation.
“It would probably be one of only ones in America,” Gates said. The railway has applied to Jackson County for a loan, a grant or both to help make the project a reality.
Steam engines are a rarity, and their antiquity is enough to draw new visitors to the railway.
“This could change Western North Carolina,” Gates said. “It could be probably the second largest tourist attraction outside Biltmore.”
In order for the project to work, the railroad would need a turntable in Dillsboro and one in Bryson City, where the steam engine could be turned around. Currently, the tourist train based out of Bryson City simply goes in reverse when reaching the end of its trip in order to return to the depot. But steam engines cannot move in reverse like the diesel engine that currently runs on the railroad.
Each year, 180,000 people ride the privately owned Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and the new steam engine will increase business by 15 or 20 percent, said Al Harper, owner of the railroad.
“Any steam engine will draw attention,” he said. “There just aren’t a lot of steam engines around anymore.”
And, the turntables themselves would be a big draw for visitors, especially if they include a viewing walkway where spectators can watch the engine being rotated.
The turntables as well as the creation of a walkway surrounding the mechanisms would cost about $600,000 total, plus about $450,000 to move the steam engine and railcars from Maine. It is unclear exactly how much the railroad would put up itself versus how much it is asking for.
A slice of the pie
While Swain and Jackson counties may be amenable to helping the railroad, as talks continue they may bump heads over a fairly significant detail. Both counties would like the steam engine based in their hometown as a condition of putting up money.
“I am very much in favor of the steam engine, and I’m in favor of the turntables,” said Robert White, a Swain County commissioner. “It’s unique.”
However, White would prefer that rides on the new engine originate from Bryson City.
“As far as I’m concerned, the steam engine should come out of Bryson City,” White said. “That is going to be a decision made by Mr. Harper.”
White added that the county is willing to do anything it can to help the railroad as long as it benefits Swain County.
Meanwhile, Jackson County has been clear that is wants the steam engine based out of Dillsboro for at least five years.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said the county would insist on that in writing as a condition in of any loan or grant the county made.
“We wanted to make sure number one that the train was going to operate mainly out of Dillsboro,” he said.
Harper said that Bryson City would remain the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s center of business but that Dillsboro would become the center of operations for the steam engine. This would give both towns a slice of the railway’s revenues.
Swain County commissioners suggested that a meeting between the railroad and leaders in Jackson and Swain counties to iron out the details.
“Everybody wants to see the jobs come in. Everybody wants to see the trains come in,” said David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner.
A talk will not take place for at least another few weeks because several key officials will be on vacation.
“We need a good joint cooperation,” Monteith said.
Talks between Dillsboro and the railroad were put on hold before Christmas because of a problem in Colorado, home to one of Harper’s other railroads.
Gates has spearheaded the negotiations between the Town of Dillsboro and the railroad.
Harper and Dillsboro officials have tossed around various numbers for nearly a year, but it is unknown how much, if anything, Jackson County will chip in to help the railroad.
“That is kind of a wide open thing,” Gates said, declining to list a number until one is presented to the town or county in writing.
Harper said he is reviewing his original plans and looking for ways “to get the cost down.” One option would be to sell the eight passengers cars that he purchased along with the steam train and only transport the engine to Western North Carolina, he said.
“I really don’t need more rail cars,” Harper said.
Moving the steam engine train from Maine will cost about $450,000 on top of the $600,000 for turntables, but no one was willing to say how much the total project will cost.
“We don’t have a final idea of what funds are available,” Harper said.
However, Harper did say at one point he could pick up half the tab of moving the train if Jackson County paid the other half.
Meanwhile, Gates is hoping that Dillsboro to help the railroad land a grant for up to $200,000 in Golden Leaf Foundation to help pay for the turntables.
However, more details must be settled before the town can submit a funding application.
“We can’t apply for a Golden Leaf grant because we’re not ready to,” Gates said.
The town needs the support of Swain and Jackson counties as well as Bryson City if it wants to move forward with the project.
The train used to run from Dillsboro to Bryson City and beyond, but in 2005, the railroad moved its base of operations to Bryson City.
“(In the past) There hasn’t been the cooperation with Dillsboro,” Harper said. “There were some feelings for a while that Dillsboro did not care about the railroad.”
The railroad is a boon for whichever town it originates from. People riding the train shop in the town’s stores and eat at its restaurants both before and after their ride. While those stops along the tracks such as Dillsboro also benefit, the economic ramifications are considerably less because visitors only have a 90-minute layover in the town.
“We need something to get ‘em to stop here,” said Tim Parris, an alderman from Dillsboro.
When the railroad shifted its headquarters to Bryson City, Dillsboro suffered as tourism declined. The steam engine would bring those visitors back to Dillsboro.
The town indirectly lost about 44 jobs as a result of the move, Gates said.
The railroad has said it will hire 15 people to run its operations out of Dillsboro, but the return could create more jobs at local shops and restaurants, Gates said.