Railroad, Jackson leaders at impasse on plan to bring train back to Dillsboro
The news of stalled talks between the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and Jackson County was met with mixed feelings in the little village of Dillsboro, which once served as the hub for the bustling scenic railroad.
“I just don’t get it,” said David Gates, a Dillsboro alderman who advocated for the deal to go through. “Most counties would give anything on God’s green earth to have this opportunity. Dillsboro will just be another little town in the mountains with empty shops.”
He predicted more shops would close in Dillsboro this year and even harder times were on the horizon.
“I think you’re going to see four to six more shops close this year,” Gates said. “You’re going to see people lose their livelihoods.”
Dillsboro’s merchants had pinned their hopes on a deal being struck between the county and the railroad. In exchange for a $700,000 economic development grant from the county, the railroad in return promised to bring back train service to Dillsboro, plus some.
The promise of the tourists that the train would bring had given new hope to merchants who have been faltering since the train suspended the majority of its trips in and out of Dillsboro several years ago and instead moved the center of its operations to nearby Bryson City.
Renae Spears, owner of The Kitchen Shop in Dillsboro, said she couldn’t understand why the railroad and the county leaders, both with so much to gain from making a deal, couldn’t make it work.
“I think that there has to be common ground that can be worked out,” Spears said. “I’m not one for giving them tax dollars outright, but there certainly has to be something that can be worked out. What other opportunity does the county have that is sitting in their lap?”
She worried that if something didn’t happen soon, Dillsboro might never be the same.
“Dillsboro is running out of time,” Spears said. “We’ve been years without the train and no economic relief because of it.”
In exchange for an economic development grant, the railroad had made several promises: to once again originate some of its passenger trips from Dillsboro, to make improvements to its maintenance yard there so visitors could watch trains being worked on, and build an engine turn-table in town.
But as a condition, the county had demanded — in vain — that the train turn over its finances as a prerequisite to administering a $700,000 grant. Those negotiations, which have been going on for more than two years, fell apart last week.
Standing behind the counter in Bradley’s General Store Monday, Rose Anne Johnson pondered what the latest impasse would mean for her business. A few customers, preparing for a rafting trip on the adjacent Tuckasegee River, shuffled into the shop. It was a far cry from the booming business she does on days when the train arrives from Bryson and dumps out droves of customers onto the streets of Dillsboro for a short layover.
“We’ve had moments where we have had people out the door in the line to get ice cream,” Johnson said.
She said she understood both sides, however.
“I think the commissioners are between a rock and hard place,” Johnson said. “The whole town has their hopes up and we’d welcome the train back, but I’ve heard that the train has not been the best of business neighbors.”
Plight of a one-horse town
Not too long ago, Dillsboro was the bustling hub of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Trains rolled in and out almost non-stop, funneling about 60,000 people a year through the town — and through the doors of merchants’ shops, seeking everything from souvenir refrigerator magnets to root beer floats.
But around 2006, the train shifted its headquarters to Bryson City. Then more and more trips began originating from Bryson City, and Dillsboro became a mere layover destination. When the recession hit and ridership declined, the train pulled out of Dillsboro completely.
Dillsboro suffered — big — and just how much the town relied on the train's overflow foot traffic became obvious.
A pair of visitors from New Orleans walking around Dillsboro Monday noted the stark difference between the Dillsboro that day, with no train on the tracks, and the Dillsboro they witnessed years ago on their last trip to the town. Then, the town was bustling.
“We couldn’t find a place to park anywhere around and the stores were packed,” said Tom Yaeger. “We can notice the difference, some businesses have even closed since then.”
A couple of years ago, the train began reintroducing limited layover trips into Dillsboro — but only during certain months and select weekends.
The now-sidelined steam deal held the promise of once again seeing train trips originate out of Dillsboro.
T.J. Walker, owner of the Dillsboro Inn, said his business pulls in $80,000 less in annual revenue than five years ago when Dillsboro was in its heyday of train traffic. Just a few weeks ago, Walker said he barely scraped together enough money to pay his 2012 property taxes.
He was not too forgiving of county decision-makers, whom he faulted for scaring off a deal with the train with requests for financial disclosure. He even threatened to run for county elected office to fix the situation himself.
“I think Jackson County is being hyper-vigilant and not looking at the big picture,” Walker said. “Our county commissioners are kidding themselves if they think they can replace the train.”
The county has pointed to another promising “opportunity” that could help breathe new life into Dillsboro: capitalizing on the Tuckasegee River at Dillsboro’s doorstep. The county offered to help Dillsboro with the creation of a river park that would lure more paddlers and fishermen.
Walker said the commissioners should show more faith in the railroad, however, and go out of their way to accommodate it because of the economic impact it could bring back to Dillsboro and Jackson County as a whole.
Dillsboro’s loss is Bryson’s gain
Meanwhile, Swain County is moving full steam ahead on an economic incentive package for the railroad to further expand its operations in Bryson City.
Swain County will chip in $600,000 to help the railroad rehabilitate an old steam engine to add to its all-diesel fleet. The steam engine would be a major new selling point and further boost the tourism draw of the railroad in Swain County. It will also help build a turntable needed to operate the steam engine.
The county is close to finalizing the deal. The sizeable grant would come entirely from tourism tax dollars, which can only be used on tourism initiatives.
County Manager Kevin King wagered that’s one reason why there hasn’t been nearly the same level of controversy in his county as in Jackson.
“If we were using general fund money, we would have had a lot more opposition,” King said. But the money for the train grant is coming entirely from a tax collected from accommodation owners and their patrons.
King said Swain County leaders didn’t feel it was necessary to examine the train’s books. But King emphasized that there will be plenty of oversight involved in the grant.
“We will not give the railroad a blank check,” King said.
The railroad will present invoices and work orders for all the work done on the steam engine, and the county will pay out the money along the way, making sure it is spent on its intended purpose.
Furthermore, the county has a nice piece of collateral should the railroad not live up to its end of the bargain. The title to the steam engine is actually being transferred to the county’s name. If the train lives up to its end of the deal, after 15 years the title reverts to the railroad. If not, the county will own the steam engine.
King said the county and the town of Bryson City understand the importance of the railroad to their economy.
“If the train moved off tomorrow, we would be critically hurt. We would be hurt badly. We have rafting and the train as far as tourism attractions — aside from natural beauty,” King said.
Al Harper, the owner of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, said he appreciates the cooperation he has gotten from Swain County and Bryson City.
“They said we’ll give you parking, we’ll open streets, we’ll close streets, we’ll do whatever you want. It was a whole different attitude,” Harper said.
He didn’t always enjoy that kind of relationship with Dillsboro, pointing to a handful of conflicts and disagreements between the train and Dillsboro over the years. But Harper said new leaders in Dillsboro have “bent over backwards” lately to restore the broken relationship.
“The attitude today is wonderful. But there is still a contingent that doesn’t like us,” Harper said.
Ultimately, Harper decided it wasn’t worth the controversy. Without 100 percent buy-in from Jackson County leaders, he didn’t want to proceed with trying to broker a deal.
Harper said his scenic rail operations make money, but not a huge amount. It is a risky business, with low profit margins and high overhead, he said.
“I do this because I love it. I have this noble cause to save railroad history. I have the noble goal of helping communities,” Harper said.
Ideally, the train could have worked out a deal with both Swain and Jackson counties. Without Jackson’s money, the big picture of expanded rail operations between Dillsboro and Bryson will likely fall short. The $600,000 from Swain probably won’t be enough to rehabilitate the steam engine and build the needed turntables — let alone make improvements to the train’s maintenance yard.
“If it comes out on the low end we are OK, but if it comes out on the high end I may come back hat in hand and say, ‘Jackson let’s make a deal,’” Harper said.