“Tourism is our number one industry. Our goal with tourism is to keep people here for another night, to come back again, to have a positive experience so they go home and tell other people. That’s what we have to do,” County Manager Kevin King said.
The heritage museum and visitor’s center will work in tandem.
Visitors are bound to be enraptured by the unique combination of cultural heritage, outdoor adventure and scenic respite that Swain County offers.
“What we have, nobody else in the country has,” said County Commissioner David Monteith, rattling off a huge list that makes up Swain’s diverse and unique tourist appeal.
And for locals, the museum is a place to visit time and again, to remember their own roots and the shared heritage that give Swain its distinct Appalachian sense of place.
Some of the exhibits and displays, both in the visitor center and museum sections, are still works in progress and won’t be finished for a few more months yet. But rather than wait until the final pieces are in place, Monteith said it makes sense to open in time for the summer tourist season, and put the building to work for one of its intended purposes: as a magnet for tourists.
The 1908 historic courthouse is an impressive attraction in its own right — adorned with stately white columns, a six-sided bell tower and a golden dome with inlaid clockfaces. It’s one of the oldest architecutral icons of the Smoky Mountains still standing, and its a perfect hook to get visitors inside.
Once they step through the doors, they’ll be greeted by a huge staffed travel desk to aid them with trip planning and itineraries. Displays and kiosks will showcase local activities and things to do. A giant brochure rack will be packed with magazines and pamphlets on area sites. And big, wall-mounted screens will play a continual-loop video of attractions to see and adventures to be had.
“It will make visitors aware of just what is in Swain County,” said Elise Bryson, chair of the Swain County Museum Heritage Board.
It’s as interactive as a visitor center can be, and that’s by design.
“What can they do to create their own history in Swain County?” King posed.
The large visitor information desk will be manned by travel specialists with the Swain County Chamber of Commerce and tourism authority, and by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit arm that supports the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The first floor will also house a gift shop and book store run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, which should be operational by late summer. The arrangement is mutually beneficial. The visitor center will benefit from staffing by Great Smoky Mountains Association employees and volunteers, and in turn sales from the book store will help the nonprofit with its mission of supporting the park.
“They are helping us with the visitor experience, so we are letting them use the space,” King said.
The first floor will also have space set aside for exhibits from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which oversees Fontana Lake, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“They are such an important part of Swain County,” Bryson said.
Despite some lingering resentment over the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains Park 80 years ago, which isolated Swain County in a sea of backcountry wilderness, the visitor center embraces the reality of the massive park at the county’s backdoor. That’s a big step for Swain County.
“We are a gateway community,” King said. “The majority of Swain County lies in the park.”
Monteith believes the museum and visitor center will be an important anchor for downtown and hopefully lure foot traffic clustered around the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to venture further afield. Everett Street will now be flanked by the bustling train depot at one end and the heritage museum and visitor center at the other.
As a bonus, the grounds behind the visitor center and museum will sport a new riverside “pocket park,” a small public greenspace with picnic tables and a viewing platform over the river.
“We hope it will open up this whole part of town,” Monteith said. “I know they will come in force.”