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WCU study: Return of Dillsboro train would mean $26 million for local economy

CULLOWHEE – An economic impact study conducted by professors in Western Carolina University’s College of Business estimates that the return of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to the town of Dillsboro would inject nearly $26 million annually into the local economy.

The study also estimates that the resumption of steam-engine train service in and out of Dillsboro would create or maintain about 314 jobs and generate more than $4 million in local, state and federal tax revenue.

Results of the economic impact report were shared with the Jackson County Board of Commissioners by Betty Famer, WCU professor of communication and special assistant to the chancellor for university partnerships with Dillsboro, during a work session Monday, March 18.

The study was conducted by Inhyuck “Steve” Ha, associate professor of economics and director of WCU’s master’s degree program in business administration, and Sandra Grunwell, associate professor and director of the program in hospitality and tourism management.

Jackson County commissioners are considering whether to approve a loan of $700,000 to help the operators of the railroad company construct a turntable and spur, reopen its depot in Dillsboro, and to once again originate steam-engine service from the town. During its heyday, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad attracted about 60,000 visitors annually to Dillsboro before its operations in the town were shut down in 2008.

The board will hold a public hearing during its next scheduled meeting April 1, and is expected to vote on the proposal following the hearing.

In addition to the estimated economic impact resulting from the resumption of the scenic railway service, construction of the turntable and a spur track also would have an extra one-time economic impact of more than $1 million, and create or maintain about 11 jobs, the study found.

The study examining the economic impact of the return of the train to Dillsboro is part of an ongoing Dillsboro/WCU partnership, a university-wide effort designed to match WCU expertise and resources with Dillsboro’s challenges and opportunities. Initiated in 2009 at the request of Dillsboro leaders seeking assistance in difficult economic times, the project involves dozens of WCU faculty and staff and hundreds of students across numerous disciplines.

“We are glad to continue to share faculty, staff and student expertise with our neighbors in Dillsboro and across Western North Carolina,” Farmer said. “Initiatives such as the ongoing WCU partnership with Dillsboro are an integral part of the university’s core mission as a regionally engaged institution of higher education. Building partnerships for economic and community development is part of the university’s strategic plan.”

For more information about the economic impact study or WCU’s partnership with Dillboro, contact Betty Farmer at 828-227-3804 or bfarmer@wcu.edu.

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