Bears didn’t boogie in the woods, but the yearlong 75th-anniversary celebration of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park hasn’t been a bust. Favorable weather and cheaper gas have made going more attractive, and the prospect of a busy fall meant a 9.5% spike in tourists through August could climb higher.
Park festivities didn’t contribute much directly. A rededication ceremony in September attracted 2,000 people, mostly dignitaries, and a symphony concert attracted 7,000. But neither is significant, given that the park attracts 40,000 on a good day and more than 9 million a year. The real boost came from international publicity about the anniversary of the nation’s most-visited national park. “People were fascinated by stories about how people in North Carolina and Tennessee gave up their land, raised money and pushed for the park,” says Ann Froschauer, anniversary coordinator for the Great Smoky Mountains Association, the National Park Service’s fundraising partner. Many descendants of those early supporters live in adjoining Swain, Haywood and Graham counties and benefit from the estimated $734 million the park pumped into the region last year.
While the number of visitors is up this year — 6.6 million through August, compared with about 6 million for the same period last year — two counties in particular are waiting to see if they bring much money. Swain’s tourism revenue of $233 million in 2008 was off 7.1% from the year before, the biggest falloff in the state, and Graham’s $23.4 million was down 4.6%. “Gas was high, and the park may have gotten increased visitors from the local area,” Froschauer says. ”They don’t spend the extra dollars in motels and restaurants.”
But it’s not just about fluctuating gas prices. Some wonder if the park’s allure is fading. Visits peaked in 1999 at 10.3 million. “We then dropped a million in one year and have been holding at around 9.3 million since,” National Park Service spokesman Bob Miller says. Analysts fear many potential young visitors have contracted “nature-deficit disorder” and are more interested in video games and glitzier attractions such as Dollywood amusement park in nearby Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
The park is responding by sprucing up — $65 million in stimulus money will permit “more progress in our maintenance backlog in the next year and a half than in the last 30 years,” Miller says — and adopting more technology-based nature programs for youth. “It’s a challenge for sure,” Froschauer says, “but I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where kids don’t want to play in a stream, catch salamanders and roast marshmallows around a campfire.”
House prices finally fall
For the past few years, those partial to Asheville’s hippie vibe could buy a decent house there only if they had a yuppie’s bank account. It’s still not for paupers, but the cost might be coming down a bit. In August, the average resale price of a single-family home in Buncombe County dropped to $224,588, the lowest since January 2005. That’s bad for people wanting to unload a house but good for buyers, especially those in their 20s and 30s, says Tom Tveidt, research director at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. “These younger folks may now be able to find an affordable home in the Asheville area.”