A grassroots effort is showing support for the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s return to Dillsboro.
Several Dillsboro merchants are spearheading the effort to collect signatures on a petition addressed to Jackson County Commissioners.
That petition supports “the increase of rail service in and out of Dillsboro to spur economic development throughout all of Jackson County.”
Copies of it have been distributed to businesses in Dillsboro and Sylva and as of Aug. 29, the total number of signatures topped 2,000.
County leaders were in the process of drafting an economic development package to aid in the train’s return to Dillsboro, but discussions broke down two months ago after GSMR refused to submit financial information. That draft agreement, which is similar to one Swain County prepared, would have provided the railroad with a $700,000 loan that was to be forgiven after 15 years, provided certain stipulations were met.
The proposal called for the restoration of GSMR’s steam engine and for half of that engine’s trips to originate in Dillsboro. It also provided for turntables to be built in Dillsboro and Bryson City and for a maintenance garage in Dillsboro to be expanded.
GSMR would have had to repay the county only if the train failed to keep its steam engine operational for 15 consecutive years, didn’t create six full-time jobs or failed to originate half of its steam-engine excursions here.
GSMR owner Al Harper sent commissioners a letter in July indicating the train would focus on Bryson City and declined to release GSMR financial information.
Petition organizers sat down with The Herald last week to discuss their views on the importance of bringing the train back to Dillsboro.
Loss of jobs, revenue
When the railroad pulled out of Dillsboro in August 2008, it wasn’t a result of merchants “running it out of town,” Dogwood Crafters’ Brenda Anders said.
“That’s a misunderstanding,” she said. When the recession hit, (GSMR) had to close one of their stations and it made sense for them to close Dillsboro, she said.
“The only complaint I’ve ever heard about when the train was in town is the lack of parking, which is a good problem,” Anders said.
In 2004, the town purchased the Monteith Farmstead, partially to expand the town’s available parking and offer shuttle service to the train, said Jean Hartbarger, who was then the town’s mayor and owns The Jarrett House with her husband, Jim. Some 99 percent of Dillsboro’s merchants support the train’s return, Jim Hartbarger said, with Dillsboro town board member David Gates adding “you can’t get 100 percent support out of any cause.”
The financial impact of the train’s departure from Dillsboro has been devastating, merchants say.
Gates, who formerly owned David’s Place and Bradley’s General store, estimates he lost $1.25 million in revenue as a result of the train’s departure.
At one point, Bradley’s had seven employees, and Gates said if he still owned the store, there would likely be just one.
Nancy Tut’s Christmas Shop owner Mike Potts says those figures are likely about the same for him – that estimates the train’s exit caused him to lose more than $1 million.
“The store’s been in business since 1968. We are trying to persevere, but it gets harder and harder every year,” he said.
At one point, Jim Hartbarger said the Jarrett House had some 60 employees, a figure that’s now shrunk to 24. He attributes most of that loss to the train’s departure and estimates business is down some 60 percent.
On weeks the train ran in Dillsboro, Anders said Dogwood would realize an additional $3,000 in revenue over a two-week period.
Dillsboro stores all depend on one another for success, they said.
“My success depends on Jim’s success,” Potts said. “We get so many customers that come in to shop after eating (the Jarrett House’s) chicken and dumplings and want to walk off their meal,” he said.
It’s a domino effect, Potts said.
“The more stores we lose, it cripples everyone,” he said.
Not just for Dillsboro
While many have pegged a potential return of the train as a boon for Dillsboro, the effects would reach throughout the county, Potts said.
“It’s not just a Dillsboro thing,” he said. “That’s one of the things we’ve tried to let people know – it’s about Jackson County and everyone in the surrounding area – everybody benefits from it.”
If people driving down U.S. 441 don’t turn into Dillsboro, they’re not going to get to Sylva either, Potts said.
An economic impact study prepared by Western Carolina University shows the train’s impact to the county as $26 million annually. (The impact study is included in the online version of this story.)
A county investment of some $700,000 would be a drop in the bucket compared to the return on the investment, Potts said.
Noting that the agreement commissioners were considering would have forgiven about $46,000 of the grant/loan per year for 15 years, Potts said getting $26 million in return for $46,000 a year is a good deal. He said the $26 million a year gained, times 15 years would be a huge ($390 million) economic stimulus for the county.
“I think local officials would have to be shortsighted not to see that,” he said.
According to Jean Hartbarger, local restaurant owner John Faulk demonstrated the train’s impact to Dillsboro merchants by pouring water from a bucket into an 8-ounce Styrofoam cup. Water poured over everywhere, she said, adding that the cup represents Dillsboro and the water represents the train’s impact. A portion of the revenue is concentrated in Dillsboro, but much more spills over into the surrounding community, she said.
Jim Hartbarger relayed the story of a Swain County government official who came into the Jarrett House recently. The two had a lengthy conversation about the train, he said.
“Swain County looked at the risk and it was a no brainer. All you have to do to see that is look where (Bryson City) was two years ago and see where we are now,” Hartbarger said the official told him.
Dillsboro Inn owner T.J. Walker said that the $46,000 a year that would be forgiven could be paid for by the sales and occupancy taxes generated in two peak months with the railroad running.
“That is a small price to pay for the exposure of the railroad as being a destination point on the information highway and on U.S. 441,” Walker said.
Gates agrees with that notion. In past years, 150,000 brochures were printed for the train that advertised the railroad operating from Dillsboro, he said.
“Now ‘Dillsboro’ has been replaced by ‘Bryson City,’ he said.
However, Dillsboro’s goal is not to take the train from Bryson City; Dillsboro wants to share and partner with the Swain County town, Gates said.
Merchants say they believe 60 or so jobs would be created by the train’s return, and say that’s a conservative estimate. Guidelines in the county’s draft grant/loan proposal stipulate one job created per $10,000 loaned, but jobs created outside of GSMR at other Dillsboro businesses wouldn’t count toward the total.
The WCU report indicates some 314 jobs would be generated as a result of the train resuming operations in Dillsboro. Some 60,000 visitors came to Dillsboro each year before the train’s 2008 departure, according to the report, which assumes similar numbers should the train return to Dillsboro.
Commissioners have been firm regarding adequate collateral for any county funds loaned to businesses. Many loans issued prior to the current board’s tenure were not repaid, and the county was left holding few assets.
During discussion regarding an economic development package for the train, commissioners asked for adequate collateral from the train, in case GSMR did not meet the terms of the proposed deal.
Walker, however, said he thinks the county’s insistence on collateral is short-sighted.
“I know the county has made a lot of bad loans, but in this case, this would be a very wise partnership not only with the railroad but with Swain County and WCU,” Walker said. “Mr. Harper says he doesn’t want a ‘reluctant partner,’ and I don’t blame him. We should be an enthusiastic and proactive partner with the railroad – proactive and not reactive.”
When asked why he thinks county leaders are reluctant to move forward with a grant or loan for the railroad, Walker terms it a lack of vision and says he wants county officials to look to the future rather than the past.
“GSMR moved away – they got a deal they couldn’t refuse from Swain and Bryson City because it was more centrally located. Leaders haven’t forgiven them,” Walker said. “We haven’t lived and let live.”
Several years back when the train refinanced debt, the Federal Railway Administration said GSMR could take on no new loans without its approval. Swain commissioners provided the train with a grant, rather than a loan.
“It doesn’t seem to me there’s a whole lot of other places to put the money right now. Really we’re just sitting on it,” Potts said. “Everyone is always worried about making a bad investment. Sometimes the worst investment is the one you don’t make – I wish I had bought into Ford stock when it was $1.20 a share.”
In his 38 years in Dillsboro, Jim Hartbarger said he’s never seen better collaboration among merchants in support of a common cause. Dillsboro business owners, along with members of the public and county leaders, have met in the Jarrett House in recent months to talk about the future of the town. The group of about 60 people has talked at length about what the train means to the town.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the merchants being so united,” Jean Hartbarger said.
“After a couple of those meetings, we realized people really don’t recognize the amount of support for the train,” said WCU Professor of Communications and Public Relations Betty Farmer, who has worked with the town for years on revitalization efforts.
Merchants The Herald spoke to cited a “wonderful” relationship with the college and specifically named Chancellor David Belcher as a powerful driving force with the collaboration.
“The town’s relationship with WCU is the best it’s ever been,” Jim Hartbarger said.
“(WCU) wants something for the students to do, for the parents to do. Whether it’s a train ride, waterfalls to go see or other attractions,” David Gates’ wife, Carrie, said.
“We need to give them a reason to stay here one more night,” David Gates said.
Patrons come into Dogwood everyday and are concerned about the train’s return, Anders said. People who used to come to Dogwood brought their children to ride the train. she said.
“Now those children are bringing their children,: Anders said. “They’re into the train more so than we are.”
People come in curious about the train and why it’s no longer in Dillsboro, Anders said.
The town has been collaborating with WCU in an effort to revitalize the town and bring in tourists. Working on a budget of around $8,000 a year, town leaders put on several well-attended festivals; Dillsboro held a garage sale recently to generate funds for the horse and buggy that provides rides for the annual luminaries festival.
“The next thing we’ll have to do is hold a car wash,” Anders said, adding the town used homemade decorations for its Easter and fall festivals to save money.
“We’re at a point where we need some help,” she said.
“We need Jackson County’s support,” Carrie Gates said. “We cannot do it without them.”
A lot of people are in desperate situations, Jean Hartbarger said.
Some Dillsboro merchants have had to make the tough choice of letting their home go into foreclosure to keep their shop open, and some merchants have lost their homes, Anders said.
Walker said two commissioners – Doug Cody and Charles Elders – support the railroad’s return, and both confirmed that position to The Herald.
“It’s not a dead issue at all. I still believe in the merits of having the train there,” Cody said.
“I’d like to see business return to Dillsboro,” Elders said. “I think the train would be a great benefit.”
Elders also runs a business that depends heavily on tourism – Elders Superette gas station along U.S. 74 – and remembers a time when Dillsboro was so busy he avoided driving through town because of congestion.
However, Walker said he’s disappointed by Commissioners’ Chairman Jack Debnam’s stance on the issue considering that Debnam owns a business in Dillsboro. Debnam’s real estate firm, Western Carolina Properties, is located one street over from the railroad.
“I’ve been a business owner for 25 years. I’ve seen the train come and go. It definitely brings people flowing into town,” said Debnam, who added that he had “some ethical questions” regarding whether he should vote on any proposed GSMR assistance package.
“I do see the train as a good thing for Dillsboro under the right conditions, but there are certain conditions that need to be met,” he said. “We made Jackson Paper, WRGC and Webster Enterprises jump through all the hoops, and we’ve not made a bad loan. It’s not my money, it’s the taxpayers’ money. It’s 42,000 people’s money,” Debnam said, adding that county coffers are a “trust account.”
Commissioner Vicki Greene, however, questions whether the county should be the funding source for the train’s return.
“I saw the distress on the merchants’ faces,” Commissioner Mark Jones said, who spoke to a group of 60 people gathered at the Jarrett House a few weeks ago. “I basically said I am 100 percent for the train coming back to Dillsboro; however, I cannot find it a wise use of taxpayer’s money to give them a $700,000 grant as a private business.”
Jones suggested a compromise: perhaps the town of Dillsboro, the Tourism Development Authority and the county could be partners in an incentive package that would bring the train back to Dillsboro.
He also suggested the train do more diesel trips into Dillsboro to show a sign of good faith.
“Is a $700,000 grant worth $26 million a year?” Jones asked. “I don’t know.” If it could be shown to us (commissioners) how that $26 million would come in, I would sure like it.”
The door for communication has not been shut between the train and the county, Jones said.
Merchants say they are a bit miffed about the slow progress of moving forward with the train’s return because some commissioners who attended Railfest promised them to support the return, a statement several merchants heard first person.
“Our commissioners stood at Railfest and said Jackson County was going to support them the same as Swain County was,” Carrie Gates said.
To date, nobody, in Commissioner meetings or letters to the editor, has opposed the train’s return to Dillsboro, though some have taken issue with financial backing of the train by county leaders.
“The biggest dissenters make the most noise,” Jim Hartbarger said. “We just want to show there is a tremendous amount of support for this thing.”
Jean Hartbarger agreed.
“The perception is for every one supporting the train, I hear that 10 are opposed. That’s not a fair perception,” Jean Hartbarger said. Some of us are not vocal enough. For every 10 against it there are a hundred for it, and that’s what the petition sets out to show.”
Anders said she’s tired of sitting back and letting other people say things, adding that she was approached by local activist Marie Leatherwood after a county meeting.
Leatherwood, who opposes county financing for the train’s return, told Anders there are some empty storefronts in Sylva, too, and asked whether the county should also bail them out.
“We’re not asking for help with empty buildings,” Anders said. “That will take care of itself.”
The train’s return would not only generate jobs in Sylva but all of Jackson County and even spill over into adjacent counties, Carrie Gates said.
“Look at all the waitress positions in Sylva and surrounding areas,” Gates said.
Leatherwood has spoken at commissioner meetings and been the loudest voice of opposition of the county financing the train’s return to Dillsboro, citing concerns about adequate collateral for the loan/grant package. She has also taken issue with a provision in that draft agreement allowing commissioners to loan additional funds at a future date if determined necessary.
Leatherwood drapes herself with signs and wears them during commissioners meetings showing what she terms “a rusted steam engine in pieces.”
David Gates said that if Sylva wanted to paint the town blue, Marie Leatherwood would want it red, citing her frequent criticism.
The county is waiting to hear back on a grant it applied for jointly with Swain County for $300,000 in Appalachian Regional Commission funding. That decision should be made in October and could help defray the cost of installing a turntable in Dillsboro and restoring steam service to the town.
After Harper’s July 4 letter declining to submit financial data, county Manager Chuck Wooten told Harper the county wanted to “keep all doors open” and keep the “lines of communication” open.
At that point, the railroad advised it would try to finalize numbers for the cost of renovations to the steam engine and the turntable.
“They felt like it was one of the things they needed to do,” Wooten said, to remove any concern that numbers were being bounced around as solid numbers or estimates.
The merchants have asked those interested in returning the train to Dillsboro to call Jim Hartbarger at the Jarrett House at 586-0265 to learn more.