Growing the dream

Vision to build winter tourism gains momentum
By Vicki Hyatt | Feb 28, 2016
Photo by: Illustration by Tristan Collins

MAGGIE VALLEY — Sometimes a festival is just a festival — a day or weekend where  visitors and locals alike come together for a function to have a good time.

Often festivals have a common theme — an appreciation  of a specific cultural facet, whether it be old cars, music, food, gardening or heritage.

In the case of WinterFest Smoky Style, the effort has been more along the lines of economic development. The vision was one spearheaded by the late Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone who was looking for ways to help the businesses in town — and across the county — do better during the winter months.

For most of the year, Haywood has a vibrant tourism economy, but the visitor numbers drop off after the fall color season and don’t pick up until after Memorial Day each spring.

DeSimone worked tirelessly to come up with an alternative — one that would bring just as many visitors to the county during the winter months. He pulled together a committee to help even out the visitor numbers and WinterFest Smoky Style was born.

When successful, the effort would not only drive more customers to restaurants, lodging establishments and main street business owners, but would help seasonal employees and the economy, as well.

Skiing has been a winter tourism driver for years, said Maggie Valley resident Jim Blyth, one of the WinterFest founders, but not everybody skis. Many businesses in Maggie Valley still close down for the winter because business is so slow.

“If we help people realize Haywood has a lot more to offer in the winter, too, it could be a huge boost,” Blyth said, likening the effort to that of Fur Rondy in Alaska where organizers successfully drove tourists to the coldest part of the country in the winter.

The small, first step toward the vision was to sponsor a single, weekend  event  to bring visitors to Haywood during the last weekend in February, traditionally the slowest  tourism weekend of the entire year.

DeSimone and Blyth had long been fascinated with sled dogs and mushers, and realized a new trend was developing in the sport. Dogs and mushers need to train even when there isn’t snow, and do so with sleds on wheels. Wouldn’t it be great, they reasoned, if Haywood could be the site of a sanctioned musher event where sled dogs competed on a mountain course that would be just as challenging as the ones build around snow and arctic tundra?

WinterFest Smoky Style drew a an enthusiastic crowd of 700 or so in 2015, and held its second event last weekend. Kirk Wall, an amateur musher and co-founder of the festival, is convinced the effort is growing quickly to fulfill the original vision.

The number of attendees almost doubled, he reported, and the Sunday event held at Cataloochee Ranch was met with enthusiasm.

The mushers spent the weekend on the 84-year-old guest ranch in Maggie Valley, and after a breakfast that drew almost 100, the prime task was to identify a 5- to-6 mile trail on the 1,000-acre property abutting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where a sanctioned mushing event could be held next year.

Mary Coker, who manages the family operation, was thrilled with the event.

"We're so excited about this," Coker said. "There are so many things we can do here. We're looking at musher camps where the teams can train during the off season."

The ranch already has a series of wide trails for the horseback riders to enjoy during the summer, but the rides don't occur during the winter months, making it idea to bring in a complementary winter activity.

Musher Dan Rehak said a terrain that's too steep wouldn't work at all, but that slight pulls would be OK for teams with four or more dogs.

The elevation at Cataloochee Ranch means there is often snow when the weather is sunny and dry in the valley, but what is even more important is the lower temperatures are perfect conditions for the dog training exercises.

Partners are key

Even if it grows tremendously, the WinterFest event is but a small part of the overall vision, Wall said. The committee has even contemplated  dropping the word “fest” from the advertising and plant the seed for “Winter Smoky Style,” which could then be marketed as an entire season of fun in Haywood.

Such an effort could encompass winter hiking or photography outings into the nearby scenic parks and parkway,  dining and craft beverage weeks in the county, or even other festivals or events that would draw people to the region.

“I was really pleased that we looped in with The Strand, Cataloochee Ranch, the Haywood Waterways Association and the Haywood Community College Wildlife Club for its wild game dinner,” Wall said. “We’d love for other people to come up with ideas for other events that we could help support. That’s the real message here — for all of us to get together and drive winter tourism.”

The committee pulled off last year’s festival on a shoestring budget made possible through donations. It was an event was driven mainly by inspiration and perspiration of those committed to the vision, Blyth said.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority provided $10,000 to help promote the 2016 event,  but organizers used the funds more broadly than that. On its web page and social media presence, other events planned by partners were promoted just as heavily. That included the Haywood Waterways Association’s Polar Plunge, held in early February, the Wildlife Club’s annual wild game dinner and a special documentary movie shown at The Strand in Waynesville.

TDA funding has been applied for to promote winter events in 2017 and Wall said the committee is prepared to use those funds, if granted, to help with spread the word about every winter event  in the county.

As for next year’s festival, Wall said he is hopeful other vendors, small businesses, nonprofits or those with a story to tell will step forward and help make the 2017 event grow even more.

For the 2017 winter season, the Winter Smoky Style committee is looking for partners that will be caught up by the desire to help make one of Haywood’s largest industries — tourism — become just as vibrant during the winter as it is the rest of the year.

To become involved,  go to winterfestsmokystyle.com.

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