Return train to Dillsboro, but not as proposed

To the Editor:

Let’s remember when talking about the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR), we are talking about two different entities. Formerly, the GSMR created and operated with private investment funds by Malcolm and Joan McNeill (who moved to and became an integral part of Jackson County). Currently, the GSMR is adept at operating with OPM (Other Peoples’ Money), is owned by those not living here, and has similar operations in other states to which monies can be easily transferred. 

Merely having a train coming to Dillsboro will not provide the needed economic stimulus: that only generates foot traffic to nearby restaurants/shops during a short layover. It will not “put heads in beds” or fill restaurants in Sylva or help Shopkeepers throughout Jackson County. For that, the train needs to originate in Dillsboro (or Sylva?) so people stay in Jackson County accommodations. Commissioners apparently understand this: they stated a goal for first year diesel trips and stipulated half of steam excursions originate in each county. Given that in previous years when there was a steam train, steam excursions weren’t that numerous. Any agreement should require, starting with the first year, half of all excursions originate in Dillsboro continuing so throughout 15 years. To further encourage overnight stays the agreement should require reinstatement of the Dinner Train.

It isn’t clear (the agreement hasn’t been released to the public, yet we’re invited to comment) whether the maintenance shed and turntable must be unencumbered and Jackson County have a first position, and whether the steam engine be unencumbered and that Jackson and Swain counties share first position.

I fully concur with Commissioner Vicki Green’s desire/request to see GSMR’s tax returns (and P&L) and Mr. Harper’s financials. It is incomprehensible that commissioners (businessmen also) would grant or loan $700,000 of taxpayer money without having this information.

Matching a bank/Small Business Administration (SBA) loan might be considered (a 2009 SBA change allows unencumbered business assets to be collateral). Why grant $700,000 to a private business that cannot obtain a bank/SBA loan for half of what it needs to operate?

Forgiving $40,000 a year means GSMR will, in essence, be earning more than 5.7 percent interest on taxpayer money. I don’t think any of us are able to earn such favorable rates. Does the proposed agreement stipulate that Jackson County will receive half of GSMR’s 2 percent county sales tax receipts?

Yes, let’s bring a railroad back to Jackson County, but insure that:

• Starting the first year, 50 percent of all rides originate in Dillsboro and Dillsboro’s Dinner Train is reinstated.

• Collateral is unencumbered and Jackson County has a first position.

• Jackson County receives sales tax for all rides originating in Dillsboro. 

• Money earned by GSMR stays in North Carolina.

• Any assistance is an interest-bearing loan matching an equal loan the GSMR gets.

Let’s not forget the lesson of Metrostat: merely having collateral doesn’t insure recouping losses. As good as Jackson County’s government is, they’re no more capable of running a tourist train than running an Internet communications company.

George Ware


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