Thriving tourism economy equals tax relief
It’s no secret that more and more tourists are coming to Swain County each year to enjoy the waters of the Nantahala Gorge, the mountains of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.
In turn, Bryson City has grown exponentially.
Storefronts along Everett Street and Main Street are at full capacity, lodging has blossomed, and jobs have increased.
But what does the tourism boom mean for local residents?
According to an annual study by Western Carolina University in 2015, each of the 8,793 households in Swain County saved $1,742 in state and local taxes thanks to tourism in 2014, the highest of western North Carolina counties.
“Tourism is one of the most important business centers we have in this town,” said Brad Walker. “Our restaurants, hotels, train, gift shops, all live off tourism.”
Walker, chairman for the Tourism Development Association, has seen the exponential changes from a quiet, under-the-radar town to a growing downtown mainstay.
In the same study, Swain County earned a total of $186.93 million in direct tourist spending in 2014, producing 2,050 jobs and $142,465 dollars daily in worker paychecks.
The money excludes the Qualla Boundary because Swain County doesn’t actually receive money from the casino and other businesses on the boundary.
To put it in perspective, before Harrah’s Cherokee Casino opened and the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad moved to Bryson City, the town collected $39.49 million twenty years ago in 1996.
“Tourism is just one more piece to the [economic] puzzle,” said Walker. “You have Con-Met, the new FedEx building and other factories, but tourism is the fastest growing employer in Swain County.”
Fueled by tourism, small businesses have increased, adding new restaurants, retail stores and other attractions. This year, two new businesses will open up in downtown - Snak Shack and the Great Smoky Mountain Winery.
Walker said when he first came to Bryson City 30 years ago, there were few businesses open. Now, there is very little room left for storefronts.
Karen Wilmot, executive director of Swain County Chamber of Commerce, was born and raised in Bryson City. She also said the business scene has made a dramatic change over time.
“When I was in high school, it was dead,” she said. “We would go the local Hardee’s numerous times, sometimes the movie theater, and that was it.”
Wilmot said with around 20 businesses, none stayed open in the evening. Now, more businesses stay open past the evening hours.
Gianna Carson, chairwoman of the Downtown Merchant’s Association, has owned La Dolce Vita for the past five years and said without tourism, she and other business owners wouldn’t be doing as well as they are.
“The locals here are really good at only buying locally, but there are only so many cupcakes they can eat,” she said. “We have to have the tourism.”
Carson credits the train for the success of many local businesses in the area.
According to a survey in 2009 by Western Carolina University, the GSMR contributed $61.7 million dollars to the local economy.
Carson knows that some locals might not like the train, but said many downtown businesses get a majority of their profits from the visitors, making tourism vital to their success.
“From talking to the other business owners, most everyone gets 70/30 percent from tourists to locals,” she said. “Some may be heavier local than tourists and some are 100 percent tourist.”
“Without tourism, we wouldn’t be a business,” said Ben King, owner of Bryson City Outdoors. He stated his percentage from tourist to local is around 75/25 percent.
Because visitors are flooding the streets and sidewalks, some locals are grumbling about the traffic and congestion and the future of the town, wondering if it does more bad than good.
“I think it’s just the whole big businesses thing that people are afraid of,” she said. “Without tourism, we don’t have much in this county, but because of the tourism we have tax money to make the town look nicer.”
Article 39 Sales Tax
One of the ways to break down tourism’s impact on Bryson City is looking at Article 39, a one percent sales tax on consumer goods like food, beverage, clothing, gifts and more.
According to Ken Mills, the Swain County Economic Development director, the Article 39 sales tax brought in a gross of $143 million to the county. That money includes county residents and tourists.
To break it down, Mills divided the amount of the county’s population excluding the Qualla Boundary, 8,793, by $143 million, which equaled to $16,262.
Thus, a family of four would have to contribute $65,000 dollars in sales tax in Swain County alone each year to reach the total 143 million.
“Do you know many families in Swain County that could spend that much money in Swain County every year?” he said. “There you have it.”
“If you’re a family of four and you make but $40,000, almost 50 percent of your salary was already spent in your county if no tourism was here and if population was supporting that tax,” he said.
Although it is impossible to put a precise number on how much tourists spend, calculations like that can give residents an idea of the impact tourism dollars help resident’s wallets.
According to a study by Western Carolina in 2015, tourism generated 2,050 jobs and $52 million in worker income and paychecks in Swain County in 2014.
Most notably, if tourism did not exist, each of the 8,793 people would have to pay $1,742 more in state and local taxes to replace tourist dollars.
“It’s always baffling why people don’t like tourism,” said Walker. “It helps families. If it wasn’t for tourism, they would pay more taxes.”
The next Gatlinburg
Even with the growth of business and the tax relief, some residents of Swain County are still weary and have their resentments towards the tourism growth of Bryson City.
Some complaints include not enough parking spaces, traffic and congestion and the worrisome idea that Bryson City could turn into its bustling neighbors in Tennessee – Gatlinburg.
But local leaders don’t foresee that happening.
“We can never turn into Gatlinburg,” said Walker. “With 87 percent of our land being owned by the government, we don’t have the land to do that if we wanted to.”
Wilmot agrees. “Our business and local community is very aware that it is the authentic small town atmosphere and unparalleled outdoor recreation that brings visitors back year after year. We would never endanger our present success to be the next Gatlinburg.”
Wilmot said that business owners do their best to preserve the integrity of the town and the products they sell, avoiding airbrush t-shirts or have roaring dinosaurs along the streets.
As more people come to Swain County and tell their friends about it, businesses will continue to thrive, more jobs will be created, and the town will collect the benefits.
The continued growth and success of tourism will only continue to profit residents and the town of Bryson City financially.
“Tourism is here to stay,” said Walker. “All it will do is grow, especially in a beautiful place like Bryson City and Swain County.”