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Features Venture Local series explores Franklin as a destination

Outdoor activities and entertainment a draw for visitors

Tourism is arguably the largest industry within Macon County. From lodging to hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) to kayaking down the Little Tennessee to gem mining in one of the dozens of mines in Franklin, a large portion of Macon County's economy is directly attributed to tourism.

Nearly a dozen resources are available for tourists to learn about the area and help plan their visit to Macon County. From government boards like Franklin's Tourism Development Authority or the county's Tourism Development Commission to local resources like Franklin's Chamber of Commerce, or the Smoky Mountain Host Visitor Center, or locally owned businesses geared toward helping to plan your next vacation in the mountains like Stay and Play in the Smokies.

Smoky Mountain Host of North Carolina is a regional, destination marketing organization that represents more than 300 travel attractions and businesses in the western region of North Carolina. Located on the southern edge of Franklin, the visitor center highlights the region's national treasurers like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Cherohala Skyway, the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, the Nantahala River Gorge and Cherokee, home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and local attractions such as the Fun Factory, gem mining, and AT trails.

County Commissioners just approved extending Franklin’s Gem Museum’s lease for an additional five years. The museum’s admission is free to the public.In 2011, Smoky Mountain Host of North Carolina had 280 tourism related members in Western North Carolina and had 77,415 visitors looking to learn more about the region, and distributed 47,267 travel guides. According to the visitor center's 2011 report, tourism accounts for 168,000 jobs in Western North Carolina at a payroll cost of $137.94 million. Tourism also generates $35.8 million in sales taxes and $31 million in local taxes.

Although the region has seen a decrease in tourism traffic since the beginning of the recession, marketing director for the Smoky Mountain Host Betty Huskins believes it is starting to turn around. “The visitation has been down significantly since 2008 due to the financial crisis,” she said. “It seems to be growing slowly each year but has not reached the numbers we enjoyed prior that topped 100,000. This trend is also nationwide slow, but steady, growth each year.”

According to Huskins, most visitors ask about the natural tourist attractions in Franklin. “Folks ask many questions, but probably some of the ones at the top of the list are hiking and backpacking trails, waterfalls, gem stone mines, fishing areas and of course lodging and meals,” said Huskins. “The center provides maps, brochures of our members, internet connection so visitors can browse our membership for information on specific needs such as rooms, restaurants, etc. We produce a regional guide each year and distribute it at the center and via the web.”

To accommodate visitors to the area, the center is staffed year round and features a mini museum designed to highlight the heritage of the region. “We offer a sales area where they can purchase branded items of the region, books and videos about the region's resources and also offer such items as the Tribal Grounds coffee from Cherokee,” said Huskins. “The center also has several displays on culture and heritage and features the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. We do receive many questions regarding this part of the region.”

Locally owned Primitive Outback in Otto offers gem mining and kayaking on the Little Tennessee River.The Smoky Mountain Host works closely with the Chamber of Commerce and other groups in order to most effectively promote the tourism of the region. “We encourage all local businesses to join our organization so they can have direct access to providing their information to the potential tourist. Members are listed in our guide book and on our internet site,” said Huskins. “We also work closely with the chambers of commerce and our tourism development authorities, all of which have free memberships to SMH. We distribute their publications and work with them to provide co-op marketing programs such as the Ugo Tour mobile app and magazine/internet advertising campaigns. A good example would be this year's threepage spread in the North Carolina State Travel Guide. This ad was possible because we collaborated with chambers, TDAs and private industry partners to secure a prime position in the state travel guide.”

Known around the Southeast as the Gem Capital of the World, gem mining has been a favorite activity for visitors to the Franklin area for years. According to the Franklin Chamber of Commerce, gem mining began in Macon County in 1870 and was started to mine for rubies and sapphires. Called corundum, the minerals were mined commercially for abrasives and provided work for many men. Corundum and other minerals, mica and kaolin, were hauled to the railroad by horse and wagon and shipped out of Macon County in large quantities. Tiffany's showed an interest in the area in the 1890's but two other companies, American Prospecting & Mining Co. and US Ruby Mining Co., began work hoping to find the source of the rubies found in the corundum mines. Both companies ended the search in the early part of the 20th century leaving the area open to rockhounds and gem enthusiasts.

Franklin's Gem and Mineral Society was started on Nov. 10, 1971, by a group of rockhounds who wanted to share their interest in gems and minerals. The club received its Charter of Incorporation on Feb. 28, 1972 and by Dec. 1972 its membership numbered 117.

In 1972, the society moved into a small building in the downtown area of Franklin, N.C. and opened up the gem museum. The museum, which has grown to be an essential part of the tourism industry in Franklin, not only features rock specimens, but works to educate and benefit the community. On Jan. 2, 1973, the club was granted permission to be the new occupants of the “Old Macon County Jail.” After 12 months of fund raising and more than 2,000 hours of volunteer work, the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum opened it doors to the public on May 25, 1974. In just the first five months of the museum’s opening, 3,207 people had signed the Guest Book. These visitors were from 41 of America’s United States and four foreign countries. In the second five months the museum was open, it had 3,947 visitors sign the guest book; this time, 45 states were represented and 12 foreign countries. More than 7,154 people went through the museum in 10 months. In 1990, the club was given a 25 year lease to operate the museum.

Businesses like Primitive Outback, Inc. in Otto, have taken advantage of the popularity gem mining and provides tourists with the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of Macon County while mining in the Little Tennessee River. Primitive Outback was opened in 2007 by Teri and Bob Helma.

“We specialize in kids having fun. We offer a large variety of gems in our buckets with a large amount of stones in each bucket,” said Teri Helma. “We help you identify your gems, show you what they look like when cut and tell you a little about them. When you are finished, we will bag your gems up for you to take home or if you would like to have your gems cut into a beautiful stone we can do that also. For all the younger children who pan with us they get a free prize from Teri’s treasure chest. We also have a small rock shop to shop in.”

Primitive Outback focuses on offering a family friendly environment that teaches about the history of gem mining in the region and offers the unique experience of actually mining in the river. “We try to educate our customers about the stones, their usage and how they form, so they just don’t see a rock or a gem stone for mounting but a creation of beauty that has taken millions of years to form,” said Helma.

Family-owned Three Eagles Outfitters offers nearly two decades of experience to Appalachian Trail Hikers and visitors who love the outdoors. The outfitter’s store provides hikers with transportation and items to help them restock. Photo by Vickie CarpenterWith the decrease in tourism to the area, Primitive Outback has combined different aspects of the tourism industry in order to offer a more of an affordable package deal for visitors. “In the last five years we have seen a huge decrease in business due to the economy. With gas prices soaring, lodging rates and food rates increasing we have seen a big drop in business. People cannot afford to travel far and those who do travel stay close to their own areas or visit relatives. Especially if you have children, it is even more costly. Which also leads to those who do travel do not spend as much on the little things such as souvenirs or getting stones cut and set into jewelry. The large ticket items aren’t moving as well,” said Helma. “With the economy changing, we have had to expand. Find not just one thing to bring income in but several. We expanded our business into other areas, not just keeping to one thing.”

In addition to gem mining, the Helmas also offer kayaking on the Little Tennessee River. “Our self guided river trips are approximately two and a half to three hours long,” explained Helma. “It is a slow, easy moving section of the Little Tennessee River and great for people not looking for white water or that have small children. You can sit back and let the river take you downstream, watch river otters play or deer drink from the river. The river winds through the mountains and pastures lands for a very beautiful scenic view.”

Like Primitive Outback, other businesses in Franklin have developed a business plan that takes advantage of the natural resources in the area Three Eagles Outfitters (TEO) is a local, family owned outfitter store that opened its doors in 1994 to cater to the outdoorsman. Kevin Kussow, his sister Jackie Kussow Sroka, and their parents, Dave and Sandy Kussow first opened TEO in the Westgate Plaza in what is now Gondola's. The original store held Kevin's artwork of the area, but TEO quickly grew to a full service outfitter carrying hiking gear, boots, clothing, tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, sports wear, books and camping foods, etc.

In addition to offering all the essential needs for hikers, TEO was instrumental in promoting the Appalachian Trail. “We worked very closely from the start in '94 with the AT thru-hikers, offering food, fuel, rides, and repairs to equipment,” explained Kevin. “Our role with the AT thru-hikers has become a labor of love. Our first year we saw maybe 100 hikers in our store, as word spread that Three Eagles was in Franklin, more and more hikers began to pull off in town to refuel and restock. Many of these hikers still come back to visit us when passing through WNC.”

Smoky Mountain Host of North Carolina, located on the southern edge of Franklin, provides tourists with a valuable resource for what the region has to offer.The TEO staff has more than 18 years of experience in service to the thru-hiker. They played a huge role in getting Franklin on the map as an “Appalachian Trail Town.” They have assisted more than 10,000 Appalachian Trail thru hikers since they first opened.

“There is a saying when you decide to hike the AT, it will change your life, you will forever be a part of the AT,” said Kevin. “Many follow the masses as they move north and provide trail magic leaving food and giving rides. This year we saw over 1,300 thru-hikers in our store. We provide shuttles, repairs, food and resupplies, mail drops, internet wifi. Our 18 years of service have given us a wealth of knowledge to assist in all their needs. The role of the daily shuttle provided by Ronnie Haven has been huge in bringing hikers into Franklin, it is not the trail of 15 years ago when the 10 miles from Winding Stair Gap would often send them straight on to Nantahala Outdoor Center.”

Events such as the annual April Fool's Trail Days and the Hiker Bash have been created around the influx of hikers to the area and offers visitors to the area a unique experience.

Despite the economy, Kevin said TEO is still doing well, which he attributes to people turning to natural vacations because they are less expensive. “The economy has certainly had a down turn, however our store continues to grow and do very well,” said Kevin. “My thoughts are that many folks are taking the back to nature vacations, cheaper and more family oriented. Reconnecting with a world many have forgotten chasing the dollar. Our store is situated perfectly to capture all traffic coming to Franklin and also passing through to points north. It is so hard to say if the tourism is decreasing in that our store is still growing business. I think in a better economy and cheaper fuel prices it may be more than we could handle. We are concerned if gas continues to rise and the economy dips further, we will all be affected, but we remain positive that our area holds a uniqueness that will always be a draw.”

Like so many other businesses in Franklin, TEO is a member of the locally owned Stay and Play in the Smokies.

Stay and Play in the Smokies operated by Franklin residents Matt and Melinda Bateman, is a vacation trip planner for relaxing, rejuvenating escapes to the quieter side of the Great Smoky Mountains, in and around the majestic mountains of Western North Carolina. A variety of tools and features are offered on their website to make planning a trip to the North Carolina Smokies easy and stress-free.

According to Matt, he and his wife, Melinda, wanted to start Stay and Play in the Smokies in order to share their love of the region with others. “My passion for this area of Southwestern North Carolina and the desire to offer local knowledge and insight to those coming for a visit are the main reasons we created this brand,” said Matt. “I think our entire community realizes how important visitors are to our area, but are we, as a community, providing them with all of the tools they need to enjoy their time spent here? I/we at Stay And Play In The Smokies want to do this. We want them [the visitor] to go back home and tell their friends about their experiences ... the hikes they went on ... the waterfalls they were amazed by ... the locally owned shops they bought gifts and souvenirs from ... the unique dining experiences they had, and hopefully, in turn, they will want to come back ... with their friends next time. It is paramount that we take care of them while they are here, so they become a lifelong fan of our area.”

Franklin residents Melinda and Matt Bateman operate Stay and Play in the Smokies to share their love of the outdoors with visitors to the area.According to Matt, he has seen an increase in the number of visitors to his website and those trying to plan their trip as cost and time effective as possible. “Since our launch in ’11, we have seen an influx of visitors and locals alike using our web resource,” said Matt. “On a regular basis, we receive requests for recommendations from folks looking for places to stay, eat, shop, hike and explore.

“We have an extensive events calendar that has been one of our biggest producers of visits to our website.

“Visitors and locals are always looking for things to do and we try very hard to host as many local events and activities as possible. For example, our site has over 90 hiking trails in the area with detailed local scoops, local directions and picture galleries. We make it incredibly easy to plan a trip here.”

Stay and Play in the Smokies connects the beauty of the region with the new technology needed to best learn about what to do in the area. The website offers local businesses entire web page profiles as kind of a “mini one-page website.”

“On their page, we feature photo galleries, interactive google maps, ‘Print it and Go' feature, highlights, ‘From the Owner’ messages, local scoop, local directions and more,” explained Bateman. “In turn, we promote the area and the businesses that partner with us. Also, now that we have a ‘brick and mortar’ location in downtown Franklin [208 E. Palmer Street], we are looking to do even more in the promotion of our area and our local businesses, including the addition of a regional magazine that will mirror our website.”

Local businesses benefit from partnering with Stay and Play in the Smokies for multiple reasons. “Our easy to navigate website is full of local knowledge and useful information that is being shared with visitors that are already planning to come to our area,” explained Matt. “Also, we expose our local partners at a level that is unparalleled via multiple outlets: their web page on our site, our robust social media presence — Facebook, Twitter, Google plus Pinterest and YouTube — our youthful motivated staff and now our new additions ... our magazine and our Highway 441 (Business) storefront in downtown Franklin.”

In addition to promoting the natural resources of the region, Stay and Play in the Smokies also connects tourists with entertainment venues in the area such as the locally owned Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts and the Fun Factory.

Franklin native Phil Drake has built an empire of economic opportunity for Franklin with Drake Enterprises. What initially began as a family-owned accounting business, Drake has worked to expand his brand to include manufacturing, retail, restaurants, and in 2002 he ventured into the tourism industry by building “The Fun Factory In the Smokies,” which includes the Boiler Room Steakhouse. In 2009, Drake continued his effort to help build Franklin as a destination town, by building the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts.

“We built The Factory in 2002 and opened it on July 4th weekend that year,” said Drake. “We wanted to create a place where the entire family could go and play together [in Franklin] without having to go to Asheville or Atlanta to do so.

We also wanted to create upscale casual dining atmosphere for families more than just having a pizza buffet.”

Drake Enterprises expanded its scope with the construction of The Fun Factory and The Boiler Room in 2002 to attract both locals and visitors. The family-friendly business will mark its 10th anniversary on July 4. Photo by Vickie Carpenter“We opened the theater on July 3, 2009,” continued Drake. “We wanted to bring great programs to Franklin at an affordable price, and we wanted to be a hub for entertainment.”

With both businesses dependent on locals and tourists, Drake says the Fun Factory is geared toward locals and summer vacationers to Franklin. “On the fun side - our business is mostly a weekend, summer, and school holiday business,” explained Drake. “We tend to get schools to bring buses of kids toward the end of each semester as a ‘reward.’ We also draw some businesses for meetings. We have several meeting rooms with projectors, hook-ups for computers, and PAs.”

Drake hopes to expand the market The Fun Factory reaches to help put Franklin on the map as a tourist destination. “In the future, we hope to get the gross back to 2002 and 2003 levels and to get to a break-even,” explained Drake. “We also want to become a regional attraction and not just a local one.”

In its 10th year of operation, Drake said that the economy has hurt the Fun Factory's business and resulted in the implementation of new business strategies. “Business is down since we opened. The first year was the best year we ever had,” said Drake. “Once the new wore off, business has been down. Another thing that has hurt us is the fact that gas prices have doubled in the last four years. When people have to spend that extra money on gas, then they have a lot less to spend on entertainment and eating out,” he continued. “We try to do creative marketing in social media. We also try to market to schools, clubs, and businesses. We offer bounce-back coupons to most patrons in order to reward repeat customers.”

Although the Fun Factory is struggling in the current economy, Drake noted that the performing arts center is seeing a steady increase in the amount of people outside of Franklin who buy tickets. “Some shows sell well, some do not,” said Drake. “The number of people outside of Franklin who attend is growing, but the number of people who attend who live in Franklin has declined.”

Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing ArtsThe Performing Arts Center works as an extraordinary concert and performing arts venue for Franklin and the surrounding areas. Some famous faces have been brought to Franklin that would not otherwise have come, like the Oak Ridge Boys, Charlie Daniels, Sawyer Brown, Ronnie Milsap, Lee Greenwood, and The Nutcracker Ballet (Russian ballet) as well as other performers such as great gospel artists like Bill Gaither, Mark Schultz, Amy Grant, and Michael W. Smith. Great plays and musicals like AIDA, The Foreigner, Jungle Book, Annie, Beauty and the Beast and great variety shows like acrobats, comedians, Herman's Hermits and The Gatlin Brothers, have all taken the stage at the performing arts center.

Like so many other businesses in the tourism industry in Franklin, the performing arts center relies on local groups to promote the business and reach area visitors. “We have tried advertising in Facebook and Google - but the ROI [return on investment] is just not good with those marketing venues,” said Drake. “So we have tried to engage the TDA and TDC to try to get them to market Franklin as a destination point. We are actively marketing outside of Franklin in regional newspapers, TV stations, and billboards.”

Lodging in Franklin relies primarily on the town's tourism industry in order to operate year-round. Within Franklin, those traveling to the area have dozens of campgrounds, motels, bed and breakfasts, inns, hotels, and even vacation home rentals available. Unfortunately, with the economic downturn several historic landmarks like The Franklin Motel, have been forced to close down because they couldn't stand up against the decrease in tourism to the area. Like other businesses in the tourism industry, the lodging in the area is dependent on visitors to stay open.

See next week’s issue for the continuation of the Venture Local series.


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