BERLIN – Local officials remain excited about the prospect of an excursion train in Worcester County following a visit to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in North Carolina.
Representatives from Berlin, Snow Hill and Worcester County spent two days in Bryson City, N.C. last week visiting the town and the excursion railroad that reportedly transformed it. The trip, which was funded by Rail Events Incorporated (the company that runs the Polar Express franchise at the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad), left the Eastern Shore residents eager to see the operation set up in Worcester County.
“The visit to Bryson City and the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad was a huge learning experience,” said Merry Mears, Worcester County’s economic development director. “There was much to take in about the business model, passenger experience and the overall impact such an operation can have in an area.”
Mears joined a trio from Snow Hill — Councilman Mike Pruitt, Mayor Charlie Dorman and Economic Development Consultant Michael Day — as well as Town of Berlin staff members Ivy Wells and Laura Allen for the trip to North Carolina.
Day said what surprised him was the sheer number of people the train attracted.
“The train is drawing unbelievable amounts of people,” he said. “The train has revitalized this town.”
In spite of the fact that it was in a small town (population 1,400) and more than an hour from Asheville, N.C. the train was drawing 3,500 riders a day in November and December. This time of year, the railroad operates a Polar Express train, taking children and their parents on a half hour ride to a North Pole village and then back to the station. During the ride they’re treated to commentary and hot chocolate from personalities on board.
“All of it was based on the movie,” Day said.
In addition to setting up the village and hiring commentators to roam the train cars, Day said the railroad even decorated houses along the route with Christmas lights and paid their electric bills for the month of December.
In speaking to business owners and politicians in Bryson City, the Eastern Shore group learned of the impact the train had had on the small town. According to Day the town’s room tax income had been under $7,000 a year prior to the addition of the railroad. Now, it’s $100,000 a year.
Wells says she made it a point to visit local businesses and chamber of commerce officials to get a realistic idea of the train’s economic impact.
“There’s things you don’t realize until you get down there,” she said.
Wells said she was surprised about the amount of traffic and trash the enterprise generated. Because a station in Berlin wouldn’t be located directly downtown but rather at the former Tyson facility — Berlin Falls — she doesn’t expect those issues to be a problem here, particularly if they’re taken into account ahead of time.
“Berlin is a very clean town and I want to make sure we keep it that way,” she said. “We’d have to set some standards.”
Though both Berlin and Snow Hill have been discussed as potential station sites for an excursion train, a decision has not yet been made. Wells says she’d like to see stations in both towns.
“We have so much to offer it’d be a shame not to have something here,” she said.
According to Mears, it’s now up to the various parties involved to make an excursion train in Worcester County a reality.
“The next steps for the towns are to digest the information, discuss openly what they liked and what could be improved or managed differently in an area such as ours,” she said. “I will remain involved as a facilitator and a conduit between the two towns, the railroad, the franchising company and any state level interest shown.”