The county will give a $700,000 grant to the private railroad to rehabilitate an old steam engine that used to run through Western North Carolina and add it to its existing all-diesel fleet. The draw of the steam engine is estimated to increase railroad ridership by 15 or 20 percent, which would bring up to 36,000 additional visitors a year. And, more business for the train means more customers for nearby stores.
“As a downtown merchant, I look at the train as another merchant, so the more activity he is having, the more activity I have,” said Charles Heath, who owns an art gallery just down the street from the train depot.
The grant will also go toward the construction of a turntable, or a rotating track, needed to operate the steam engine. The money will come entirely from local tourism tax dollars.
“I think a steam engine would be a great draw,” said Lance Holland, owner of Appalachian Mercantile, adding that he is able to draw business from the foot traffic the railroad generates.
Holland said he doesn’t mind that the county is giving money to the private business since it comes directly from the tourists’ pockets.
“That is exactly what the tourism tax is designed for,” Holland said.
Even though the tax is tacked on to tourists’ hotel bill, Paul Crawley, owner of Soda Pop’s Ice Cream, said he still has mixed feelings about whether any tax money should be used to support a private venture.
“[It’s] something I am scratching my head about,” Crawley said. But, “I understand what the county commissioners are trying to do.”
Others feel more strongly about the county’s choice of investments.
“It is weird to me that such a privately owned company would come into a small city and expect them to pay for something,” said Liz Nance, an employee at The Chocolate Shoppe.
However, enter almost any Everett Street business, and the owner will reiterate some version of “We are happy to have the railroad here.” Village Florist and Gifts is no exception.
“I am excited about it. I think the train really helps us,” said Cheryl Rudd, owner of the store.
However, Rudd is not without her own questions regarding the agreement.
“I guess my main concern is what kind of contract we have with them,” Rudd said, adding that she wants to make sure the train stays in Bryson City in exchange for the assistance. “If we didn’t have that, we are just going to shrivel up and die, I think.”
According to Swain County’s agreement with the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, the county will own the steam engine and the turntable and lease them to the railroad, which will maintain them. Unlike a typical leasing agreement, the county will not receive a monthly fee but rather will benefit from the increased jobs and train ridership that a steam engine promises.
The railroad must also create six new jobs, have the steam engine operating within 36 months and run the steam engine out of Bryson City at least 50 percent of the time for 15 years.
County Manager Kevin King said he has only heard complaints about the county’s investment from three or four citizens. He said he did not anticipate anyone to speak out against the investment Tuesday when the county board of commissioners held its public hearing and voted on securing financing for the steam engine and turntable.