A panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the south side of Gatlinburg shows evidence of substantial recovery in both the natural and man-made categories. / W.C. Mann
PIGEON FORGE – On Nov. 23, 2016, a fire started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the edge of which sit Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. By Dec. 12, the initial blaze had become a complex of fires that consumed more than 16,000 acres, killed 14 people, injured more than 130, and destroyed more than 2,400 structures in the park, through Gatlinburg, up to Pigeon Forge.
Almost seven months after the fire, I returned with my family to the region that has been our favorite vacation spot since before my children were born. And it’s not just me. Less than five hours away from most people in the Cullman area, the Smoky Mountains and its towns are among the top trip destinations for area residents. I came back, not just for a vacation, but to see for myself and report on the effects of the fire and the region’s recovery, starting in Pigeon Forge.
There I was welcomed by Leon Downey, the executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism.
“We weren’t affected at all,” he began. “None of our businesses were damaged in any way, so we kept operating right through the fires. We lost 14 houses on the south end of town; other than that, none of our business community were affected at all by the fires.”
When asked to compare tourism since the fire to the same time period last year, Downey responded, “That’s not really a fair question, because we’ve had three years of record tourism. The last three years, Pigeon Forge has had over a billion dollars in tourism revenue. We’ve not had a down year since 2008.”
Until now, that is.
Downey continued, “Our numbers dropped significantly; visitation dropped immediately after the fire, with those devastating images that people saw. That’s all they saw, then they didn’t see anything afterwards.
“I met a family two weeks ago from Jackson, Mississippi (while visiting that state). They found out I work in Pigeon Forge, and they said, ‘Oh, we love Pigeon Forge; is there anything left to see? We saw those devastating images–it looked like the whole place was burned down, and we haven’t heard anything since then.’
“No matter how hard we work, it’s going to take us a while to overcome the misperception. People have stayed away. Our numbers were down in January, February and March in almost all categories. In April, the numbers came back up for the first time this year.”
Downey talked about an independent survey conducted in December, showing that 16 percent of people who had previously visited the area could not say that they would come back after the fires. A local restaurant manager told me that her establishment’s revenue is down about 30 percent below this time last year.
Even Dollywood, the anchor of Pigeon Forge tourism, has taken a hit. Though she did not share specific numbers, park publicist Amber Davis admitted, “Visits to Dollywood are a little bit down this year.” In addition to the lingering perceptions about the fires, she also pointed to a higher than normal number of rain days that have hampered some of the park’s numerous outdoor activities.
Dollywood itself suffered no damage, though several rental cabins owned by Dollywood subsidiary Smoky Mountain Cabins were destroyed. Twelve park staff families were among approximately 900 families who lost their homes to the blaze. In response, Dolly Parton and the Dollywood Foundation created the “My People Fund” to help not only her employees, but all affected families and individuals.
“Dolly and her people here tried to figure out what we could do to help,” explained Davis. “They wanted to do something specific, and they decided that we needed to help those who have lost their homes; not people with vacation cabins, but those who lost their primary residence to the fire.”
After a telethon and other fundraising efforts, the Dollywood Foundation committed to giving every family on the list $1,000 per month for six months. At the recent conclusion of that program, the foundation discovered that its fundraising efforts had been more fruitful than expected; so the last set of checks to go out were for $5,000 instead of $1,000. Through the efforts of Dolly Parton and the Dollywood Foundation, every area family who lost its primary residence received $10,000 to start rebuilding.
Though it is suffering setbacks in the market, the people of Pigeon Forge are confident that all will be well; so much so that several new attractions have recently appeared or are actively under construction, including:
- Alcatraz East Crime Museum, which relocated to Pigeon Forge from Washington D.C.
- “Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Adventures” dinner show
- “Drop Line,” a 200-foot freefall ride at Dollywood
- “Whistle Punk Chaser,” a new junior roller coaster, also at Dollywood
- “Tailspin Racer,” a new water slide at Splash Country water park
- “Pigeon Forge Snow,” an indoor artificial snow park currently under construction
In addition to attractions, even more lodging is coming to the city with a recently-completed Hilton Garden Inn, along with two other hotels under the Hilton brand coming soon.
“That’s one thing about Pigeon Forge,” said Downey, “it’s always changing; there’s always something new and exciting to do here. Pigeon Forge is a small city; we only have about 6,000 residents that live here year-round, but we have over 15,000 lodging units. On any given day, we can have over 50,000 people in our city, most of them guests. We have over 80 attractions here, over 300 shopping venues, over 90 restaurants, and Dollywood, the most ticketed attraction in the state of Tennessee. And we have America’s most visited national park six miles away. For people from 3 to 103, there’s something to do at Pigeon Forge.”
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