Fall Wildfires Impact WNC Tourism As Holidays Approach

Nov 28, 2016

Despite some of the thickest smoke yet from Western North Carolina’s wildfires, the town of Franklin’s annual Christmas Parade went off as planned, bringing hundreds of onlookers to the downtown area. The parade proved to be a defiant show of solidarity among locals in the face of the wildfires, as well as a show of support for the hundreds of firefighters who took part in the event—proving that the spirit of the community would not be so easily broken as the holiday season kicks into high gear. “It’s a real testament to the community that, despite the environmental disasters, it can come forth and show such civic pride. Parades-good. Fires-bad. If Frankenstein’s taught us nothing it’s that.” But for the many businesses throughout small mountain towns like Franklin, the wildfires have been  very bad, particularly during this time of year—a time typically considered the peak of Western North Carolina’s tourist season. According to the U.S. Travel Association, the region accrued approximately $3.23 billion in tourism spending in 2014.   Much of those tourism dollars come from the region’s outdoor adventure industry. With numerous world renowned hiking trails, whitewater rafting and the area’s vast national forests, large companies like the Nantahala Outdoor Center—perhaps the region’s largest outdoor outfitter—has already seen a sizeable hit in business with the recent closure of the Appalachian Trail. With the onset of last month’s Tellico and Ferebee fires, the center’s largest facility was under forced evacuation.  In a written statement, the center’s president, William Irving said while they have not yet fully realized the complete economic impact of the fire on its business, it estimates at least a 35 percent loss in revenue for the month of November.   But the fires have also impacted small businesses linked to the region’s outdoor adventure industry as well—businesses like Franklin’s Gooder Grove Adventure Hostel, which rely heavily on the traffic of trail hikers for business. 

“The impact on Gooder Grove in the last week has been terrible. I think we’ll make it through, until next year, hopefully.”   That’s hostel owner Colin Gooder, who makes the large bulk of his business by providing wayward hikers a place to crash as they make their ways through Franklin while hiking famous paths like the Bartram or Appalachian Trails, which cut their ways through Western North Carolina.  “Just like a flood affects businesses that may not be in the flood plain, these fires were completely unexpected, and it’s definitely hurt our bottom line.”  But it’s not just small outdoor adventure businesses like Gooder Grove that have been impacted by this year’s wildfires. Around the corner in downtown Franklin, Ruby City Gem and Mineral Museum has had a particularly tough fall season because of the wildfires.  “I think it’s unequivocal. The leaf season is one of our major seasons.”  Museum proprietor Kevin Klatt, like many of his downtown business neighbors, has come to rely a great deal on sales driven by fall customers. In the nearly sixty years Ruby City has been in business, Klatt says nothing has ever come close to impacting his business like this year’s wildfires.   People come from all over the country, and this year, toward the end of the leaf season the fires broke out. The first week that the fires broke out, we saw probably about a seventy percent drop in sales based on what we would have expected and what they were last year. Town was dead.”  According to Town Alderman Adam Kimsey, owner of the Rathskeller Coffee Haus and Pub, not all was lost, despite the drop in sales.  “There’s certainly still a spike in business this time of year, with the holidays and fall in general, people still came to the area. It might have even in a weird way attracted a few people. I know a lot of professional photographers and firemen have brought business—but the spike in business compared to a normal year without forest fires is lower.”  For the time being the wildfires encircling the town of Franklin continue to blaze, with the Camp Branch Fire now only about 35 percent contained—but with state meteorologists calling for at least an inch of rainfall coming in from the southeast, perhaps business owners in towns like Franklin might just get their wish—with fingers crossed.

For WCQS News, I’m Davin Eldridge.