It was bad enough that rain fell seven of nine weekends during western North Carolina’s late summer and leaf-watching seasons. But when the side of a mountain gave way and buried a section of Interstate 40, the region found itself between a rockslide and a hard place, partly because of geography-challenged motorists. Economic developer Scott Hamilton was getting inquiries such as, “Can I get to Asheville from Winston-Salem?” even though the slide had closed the interstate on the other side of Asheville, near the Tennessee border. “It’s a perception problem,” the CEO of AdvantageWest Economic Development Group says. “People think the mountains are closed.”
They aren’t, but the region’s economy is likely to be a little rockier than usual until the interstate, a primary artery for commercial and recreational travel, is dug out. Estimates vary, but that could be in February or later, after a $10 million cleanup.The tourism sector will shoulder the heaviest burden. Ski resort owners, part of an industry that contributes $120 million a year in direct spending to the region, worry about negative impacts. Lynn Collins, Haywood County’s tourism director, says Cataloochee and Sapphire Valley, the state’s southernmost ski resorts, could lose visitors from Tennessee and other western states. Truckers will spend at least an hour more on runs between Asheville and points west, with costs passed on to shippers. “If you’re driving a truck, you’ve got no choice but to go Interstate 81 and down Interstate 26 if you’re driving from the west, or the reverse from the east,” says Jim Smith, chief economist for Parsec Financial Management Inc. in Asheville. “You might have to stop for an extra meal or spend an extra night in Asheville.” It used to be worse. A similar rockslide in 1999, before I-26 went through to I-81, forced truckers off the interstate and onto the narrower and more tortuous U.S. 70.
The slide could benefit the region’s economy, Smith says, by routing more traffic onto I-26 and into the travel-related businesses that line it. And one other industry could benefit from the closing. Many western North Carolina businesses were hiring public-relations firms to get out the word to potential customers that they were still accessible.