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REGIONALREPORT Western

Dillsboro is waiting on a train 

John Chinners likes to call Dillsboro “The Front Porch to the Smokies.” Its quaint shops — many in small buildings dating to the 1800s — sit near the junction of U.S. 74 and U.S. 441 not far from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Indian reservation. “If you leave Asheville and go to Cherokee or Bryson City, you go right by our front door. If you leave Atlanta and are going to Bryson or Cherokee or Asheville, you go right by our front door.”

That’s the problem: Tourists go right by and don’t stop. At least not as many as when Great Smoky Mountains Railroad ran a train from Dillsboro to Bryson City, which sits closer to the park. Innkeepers, store owners and restaurateurs didn’t have to advertise then, because the railroad’s ads brought them plenty of visitors, who might drive to Dillsboro, stay overnight and catch the train for some mountain sightseeing the next day.

But in August 2008, the railroad, part of Durango, Colo.-based American Heritage Railways, stopped originating trips in Dillsboro because of dwindling passenger demand. The number of visitors prowling the town’s business district has been cut roughly in half to about 20,000 a year, says Chinners, owner of Country Traditions gourmet shop and president of The Dillsboro Merchants Association. A weak economy and high gasoline prices have discouraged long road trips from big cities.

The town is still a turnaround point for train trips from Bryson City, so it still sees some riders, but they don’t stay as long or spend as much money. “The layover is usually an hour and a half,” says Kim Albritton, general manager of Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. “Passengers deboard the train there and are able to go have lunch and do a little shopping.”

That has left merchants struggling to drum up business and catch up to the rest of the world. They enlisted the aid of professors at Western Carolina University a year and a half ago, Chinners says. “They came in and said, ‘Well, y’all have got to be on Facebook.’ And we were like, ‘Huh? What’s Facebook?’”

The association now has a Facebook page with more “friends” in mid-March, 268, than the town has people, 232. Not a bad start, but business is still a far cry from the old days. And the rural economy west of Asheville isn’t likely to pick up anytime soon, says Ken Flynt, associate dean of Western Carolina’s College of Business. “It’s heavy in retail trade, heavy in services. Seasonal. Tourism. That’s not going to decline horribly, but it’s not going to recover wonderfully, either.”

There’s hope on the horizon for Dillsboro’s merchants, though. The railroad plans to launch trips from Dillsboro again, possibly as soon as October. It recently bought a steam train, which it hopes will attract more riders than the diesel it ran from Dillsboro before. It is negotiating with local officials on a financial-aid package to help it get everything ready.

If the train runs out of Dillsboro again, Chinners says, it could pump as much as $1.4 million a year into the local economy. The overall impact could be more like $5 million. It can’t happen soon enough for him. “It’s been a tough, tough, tough winter out here.”

 

WILKESBORO — Hardware retailer Lowe’s plans to add 275 employees at its call center here by September. That will increase employment to nearly 1,000. The company started in Wilkes County but moved its headquarters to Mooresville in 2003.

JEFFERSON — Denver-based Gates will add 58 jobs at its factory here during the next three years, increasing employment to nearly 325. The company makes automobile hoses and belts.

ASHEVILLE — James W. “Bill” Bailey Jr. pleaded guilty to fraud charges stemming from a Ponzi scheme that bilked investors out of $13 million during the past decade. Bailey, who operated Southern Financial Services, faces up to 43 years in prison.

ASHEVILLEBuncombe County commissioners trimmed their allowances for vehicles and technology by $12,480 per commissioner per year. The change came in response to a report showing it was the highest-paid board of commissioners in the state, receiving an average total compensation of $41,500 a year.

SWANNANOA — William “Sandy” Pfeiffer, 64, will retire as president of Warren Wilson College in June 2012. He has been president of the 800-
student college since 2006.

SYLVASouthwestern Community College President Richard Collings resigned seven months after taking the job. The college did not give a reason.