6 months after wildfire, Sevier businesses look for brighter future

5/30/2017

Elizabeth and Todd Sargent heard about November’s wildfire but came to Sevier County for their first visit anyway. Countering vague descriptions of the damage from their local news in Columbus, Ohio, was a personal report delivered shortly after the fire.

"Our oldest daughter came down a few months ago with her fiance’s family and had a really good time," Elizabeth Sargent said.

Their daughter’s reserved cabin was inaccessible due to fire damage, but she stayed in a local hotel and still enjoyed it. So her parents made the trip in late May for their 21st anniversary.

Area business owners and officials hope many more will follow the Sargents’ lead on Memorial Day weekend and throughout the summer. From the start, spokespeople for Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville said the best way to help is to come back and patronize local businesses.

“Tourism is our only industry in Gatlinburg and Sevier County,” Mark Adams, president and CEO of the Gatlinburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, said in an emailed statement. “After the wildfires, we had to react quickly to the perception that Gatlinburg was gone.”

Sevier County is third in the state for tourism — the industry had a $2 billion economic impact there in 2015. To assist in its recovery, the state is putting $5 million into marketing for the county and its cities, said Cindy Dupree, director of public relations for the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development.

The General Assembly also is lifting the Premier Resort Tax cap on Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge for three years, hiking the sales tax refund on building materials and large appliances from $2,500 to $3,500, and expanding that refund to include secondary homes, she said.

Even before the state money arrived, local tourism agencies began ramping up.

Pigeon Forge put an extra $2.9 million into marketing, starting the annual ad campaign six weeks early, said Leon Downey, the city’s executive director of tourism. Visits to tourism websites and other inquiries have surpassed numbers from the same time last year, he said.

“That’s a good indicator that people are planning to visit,” Downey said.

The Gatlinburg CVB spent an extra $2 million on the first half of 2017 — months before the ad campaign usually begins.

“We are currently advertising in 15 feeder markets with traditional television and digital advertising placement,” Adams said. Complementing that is a social media campaign, and a marketing campaign taking “Zeno the Bear” in a Jeep to invite visitors back.

“The team visited television and radio stations, AAA offices and print outlets in a dozen prime markets,” Adams said.

Business and taxes

Sevier County doesn’t have a prediction yet for this year’s business revenue, but so far it appears to be up 3 percent countywide, according to Allen Newton, executive director of the Sevier County Economic Development Council.

“I have spoken with several hotel owners and their future bookings are looking great,” he said via email. “We had a record year last year and are anticipating another strong year.”

The county expects to lose about $1.8 million in property tax revenue due to the fire, but that could be reduced by new construction, Sevier County spokesperson Perrin Anderson said. The county is offering affected property owners a 1/12 tax rebate to help offset fire losses, and if everyone eligible takes advantage of that, about $172,000 will go back to taxpayers, he said in an email.

It’s hard for Pigeon Forge officials to tell how this year is going overall, Downey said.

“We’ve asked our business community to let us know what their bookings are looking like, but it’s sporadic,” he said. “It’s really all over the place at this point in time.”

In Sevierville, sales revenue was up 1.5 percent in January from the same month in 2016, but February’s was down 3.4 percent, said Bob Stahlke, city professional services and public information officer.

“We think the February decline was a result of the fire and the fact that Valentine’s Day fell on a Tuesday,” he said. “The Chamber of Commerce tells me that March showed signs of a rebound and we anticipate this to continue in the coming months.”

Rebuilding and recovery

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Sevier County’s biggest tourism draw, and in the first months of this year its visits were up 1.1 percent from before the fire, according to Dana Soehn, National Park Service public affairs officer.

“This is pretty remarkable, as 2016 was a record visitation year for the park with 11.3 million visitors,” she said. “Last year, we had monthly visitation records set in eight of 12 months, including January through June. We broke those monthly records this year in January, February and April with modest increases.”

The 17,000-acre fire required repairs to trails, signs, guardrails and more. The park got $700,717 in emergency fire stabilization funding, and Friends of the Smokies will raise more, Soehn said. Park officials plan to ask the federal government for $907,500 over the next three fiscal years, but how much the park gets won’t be known until each fiscal year starts, she said.

The 17,000-acre fire required repairs to trails, signs, guardrails and more. The park got $700,717 in emergency fire stabilization funding, and Friends of the Smokies will raise more, Soehn said. Park officials plan to ask the federal government for $907,500 over the next three fiscal years, but how much the park gets won’t be known until each fiscal year starts, she said.

The Alamo Steakhouse’s Gatlinburg location burned down, but rebuilding began April 10, and it should reopen Oct. 1, said Kelly Johnson, Johnson Family Restaurants co-owner. The company also has an Alamo in Pigeon Forge and several other restaurants in the area.

Newest are Joe & Pop's Sub Shoppe and Mama's Chicken Kitchen, which opened April 10, and are “doing gangbusters,” Johnson said. But overall, business hasn’t returned to its 2016 level, perhaps due to a lingering belief that more was destroyed or that it’s “too sad to visit,” she said.

New and planned

The fire didn’t stop plans for new attractions. In January work started on Anakeesta, a $47 million project with a 70-acre mountaintop site linked to a downtown Gatlinburg entrance via “Chondola” (chairlift or gondola) ride. Builders aim for a midsummer opening, though all attractions won’t be complete then. Developers are working on a ticket package with Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which is just across the Parkway from the Chondola station, Anakeesta Marketing Director Michele Canney said.

Also across the Parkway is Margaritaville Resort in the Smokies, a $35 million project on the former Best Western Twin Islands site, including a LandShark Bar & Grill, which opened Monday.

“Demolition of the preceding structures is complete, and construction is well under way,” development company president Bob McManus said in a written statement. “We’re currently at the second of seven floors in the hotel tower, and we’re on schedule to open in summer 2018.”

New hotels have opened too, including the 137-room Courtyard Marriott, 178-room Black Fox Lodge and 107-room Home2 Suites by Hilton, all in Pigeon Forge.

An enduring problem isn’t a lack of rooms for vacationers, but a shortage of affordable housing. An existing problem was exacerbated by the fire, meaning Sevier County workplaces are having trouble hiring because there is nowhere nearby for employees to live.

The Sevier County Economic Development Council has been studying the housing problem since early 2016, but had to update its study to include fire impact, Newton said.

“This study is going to show that we are 100 percent occupied and that 1,500 to 2,000 apartment units are needed for our community,” he said. “There (are) waiting lists at practically every apartment complex in Sevier County currently. We are looking at ways to encourage developers to come into the market and build workforce housing. Once our study is back, we will make a final determination on what those incentives will be.”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Jim Gaines

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

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