Business owners lobby for train at every turn
Since the headquarters of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad moved from Dillsboro to Bryson City in 2008, the little picturesque tourist village in Jackson County has been waiting for its gravy train to return.
Last Thursday, the train arrived in Dillsboro, but it wasn’t packing gravy, it was carrying N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg.
Tillis met with local business owners and town officials, adding himself to the short list of candidates who have arrived in Dillsboro during campaign season to discuss economic opportunities.
Although, the event was slated as non-political, Tillis arrived with an entourage of Republicans, including N.C. House candidate Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, and Rep. Roger West, R-Marble.
Mike Potts, owner of The Christmas Shop in Dillsboro, recalled the good old days when the tourist railroad was still based in Dillsboro. He had seven employees then. But now, it is just himself, his wife and a part-time worker.
Previously, people would stay overnight in Dillsboro and ride the train during the day. Now they spend just a short layover on a there-and-back trip from Bryson City.
Dillsboro Town Clerk Debbie Coffey said since falling on hard times and cutting down its budget, the town aldermen and the mayor are performing maintenance tasks like mowing lawns and painting signs.
Many at the meeting expressed hopes that they could receive state funding to help install a turntable — a rotating train track — and help bring a steam engine to Dillsboro. Tillis tried to coach them on applying for state grants and encouraged them to keep any sort of application focused.
Tillis touted Western North Carolina as one of the highest growth potential regions of the state. State budget cuts in recent years have reduced the pool of public grant funding for such projects, however.
Potts worried that if the process took too long the business owners wouldn’t make it.
“We need help now,” Potts said. “In five years, we are all going to be gone.”