National park, community leaders discuss common interests

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Jul. 27—When Haywood County elected and tourism leaders met with Cassius Cash, the superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park last week, it had all the makings of a lasting and productive relationship.

The series of meetings with Cash was the first time Haywood leaders had an opportunity to visit with him on their home turf.

Cash told one group he was surprised with all that he learned and promised to definitely come back, bringing representatives from the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest to the table, as well.

Communities on the North Carolina side of the park have a unique opportunity to help shape a shared visitor experience, Cash said, because of the relatively clean slate. To reimagine a different visitor experience in the more developed Tennessee park side would be like "putting the genie back in the bottle," he said.

While GSMNP is managed as a single park straddling two states, surrounding communities are invited to work with the park to offer other amenities where tourists are likely to be staying during their visit.

Ken Howle, the executive director of Lake Junaluska Assembly, asked whether that included increasing the number of parking spaces on the North Carolina side.

"We have so many visitors seeking outdoors opportunities," he said, "but there's a lack of access and places to park."

Waynesville resident Kevin Fitzgerald, a former deputy superintendent at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the reality of parking spaces is "if you build it, they will come."

At some point, it becomes necessary to weigh the visitor experience in the park with the number of visitors that can crowd in, Cash said.

The superintendent suggested working with the community on ideas that would benefit local businesses and increase access. Ideas included a shuttle service into the park and exploring a new route into the Cataloochee section of the park along federally owned land into the area.

Schoen recalled the effort to build a road off I-40 in the North Carolina side of the park decades ago when local residents fought the idea.

"We developed a comprehensive plan in 1996 and got ran out of town at the time," she recalled, wondering if there was still the same resistance in the community.

Howle said a system of working with the park management to create a park visitation package complete with transit and a park reservation would be a game-changer for Haywood County.

"If you guys are game, I'm open to looking at that," Cash said. "We are at a unique planning time and have a chance to build this together. This is not the last time you will see me."

Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development authority, said local tourism leaders were excited about the meetings with Cash.

"It was wonderful to have an opportunity for us to talk with him and share our concerns," Collins said. "We are very appreciative for the chance to establish that relationship and look forward to working with the park."