Sports tourism destinations in the eastern part of Tennessee are staggering to their feet and continuing to rebuild following the fires that tore through in late November.
The fires, which at the latest count, destroyed thousands of structures and killed 14 individuals, began the Monday following Thanksgiving and were worsened by forceful winds. Gatlinburg and the areas close to it were hit the hardest. And once the fires were beaten back, a new fight began: that of local tourist destinations trying to reassure the outside world that they were still there.
“Everything was happening so fast; it was just confusion,” said Amanda Marr, communications director for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. “There were all these reports about what was there and what wasn’t.”
And, Marr noted, not all of those were true.
“One of the best example is Ober Gatlinburg, our skiing area. It was one of the places was initially reported as being destroyed.”
Kate Carbo, director of sales and marketing at Ober Gatlinburg,was quick to point out that just isn’t the case and had information posted on the website discussing the resort's status.
“We were looked at by FEMA, who had originally reported Ober Gatlinburg as being destroyed. Our facility was actually surprisingly not really affected by everything,” Carbo noted. “We have some smoke damage issues but they’re working on cleaning that up. We did receive some wind damage on the mountain and there were places where shingles were torn off buildings, but overall, we’re very thankful it wasn’t worse.”
The town of Gatlinburg has reopened to its residents.Ober Gatlinburg was closed for a week, after which personnel was allowed to enter the buildings (escorted by officials) in order to access their servers so they could do payroll for employees.
Ober Gatlinburg may have been spared the worse of the damage, said Carbo, but its employees weren’t. Over 100 workers were displaced from their homes. The company set up a GoFundMe account to help those individuals and their families with expenses.
Many individuals across the area who were forced out of their homes by the fires took advantage of the temporary shelter offered by Rocky Top Sports World. And that, says manager Lori Moore, is a story in itself.
“We’ve been serving as a shelter for the victims since the night of the fire. That morning, I got a call from the local K through 8 school asking if they could use the facility to evacuate the children.”
As if there were a question, adds Lori, whose facility mobilized immediately.
“We organized our team which that day, was just very small – we didn’t have a lot of people on duty – and we set up an area for check-in and check-out. The school was great – they were just as organized and orderly as anyone could imagine.”
It wasn’t long before Moore and her team realized there was much work to be done. More people were going to need a safe place to stay, and Rocky Top had the space. Word spread immediately.
“Suddenly, we had people pouring in the doors,” said Moore. “This place filled up quickly. It was nuts. It has been pretty crazy ever since that Monday night around 7. We had 1,200 people that first night and after that, it was about 400 to 500 people, then for a while, we had about 200 people consistently.”
At the moment, the shelter population is holding steady at 125 but it could fluctuate “because in Pigeon Forge, the hotels are re-opening for business, and they have reservations, so we may be taking in new people.”
The sports facility has also been a triage center for cases of individuals suffering from burns, smoke inhalation and more.
“We had really serious injuries coming in,” noted Moore. Rocky Top’s sports trainers were available to help, as was an E.R. doctor who had been evacuated from a local residence, and who worked for 48 hours straight
And Rocky Top itself also had its own injuries, though they weren’t as severe as the kind requiring an E.R. doc.
“With a little cleanup we will be back in business really quickly,” says Moore. “We had some bleachers that were thrown over the fence by the wind and we had turf on our fields that was literally ripped up – but in the scheme of things, we were mildly affected. As soon as our fencing is reattached and our bleachers are up, we’re back in business. We are blessed we weren’t damaged that much.”
For the time being, Rocky Top has had to cancel sports events that were scheduled for the present window of time. But, Moore says, customers have been understanding about the goings-on in the area, and know the needs of those who are sheltering in the facility have to come first.
And that has been another point that has been one of the bright spots in a dark and frightening time: the ability shown by others to care and help out in any way possible.
“We’ve had people coming in from all over the country,” says Amanda Marr. “Those who couldn’t come were sending love and prayers on social media. People sent donations. It was just amazing.”
“It’s one of the blessings of being in a small community,” says Moore. “One of the things you get from working here is you meet people in the shelter. Some you know, some you have never met, but you’re hearing their stories and learning about them. Our community has banded together – something you never know can happen unless you’re faced with a situation like that.”
“The generosity and concern shown to our community is a blessing beyond words,” said Mark Adams, Chief Executive Officer of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But it has also reinforced to us that our community is not just here at home. Our community is all the folks who have visited with us through the years, who feel a very special connection to our cities and these mountains. They continue to ask us how they can best help us because they, too, want to see this area rebuild.”
Now, according to all those interviewed for this article, comes the work of getting the word out as various areas start opening for business once again. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has officially reopened to the public. According to Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Council Director Mary Hope Maples, tourism is the county’s largest industry. And to that end, communities that might have previously competed for business are linked together to encourage visitors to return.
“Tourism is the lifeblood of Sevier County,” Maples says, “as well as its three gateway cities—Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Our tourism officials have an obligation to our residents to sustain our tourism industry to ensure that employees have jobs to support themselves and their families.”
Businesses in Pigeon Forge (including the Ripken Baseball Experience complex) and Sevierville suffered no damages; however, according to David Bounds, general manager of the Ripken Baseball, the facility, which wasn’t being used for tournaments presently, was able to offer its services as a command post for the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Area Incident Management Team. The main clubhouse, Bounds adds, was used as a communications center and headquarters for the firefighters.
“We were really blessed that we could offer them that,” he added.
Dollywood, the state’s most-visited ticketed attraction, is open. Also, Smoky Mountain Winterfest festival, which spans all three cities, is on now and continues through Feb. 28.
Sevier County tourism officials are reinforcing the message that the vacation destination’s many attractions, theatres, restaurants and lodging properties are operating as usual. In Gatlinburg, the area surrounding downtown Gatlinburg experienced significant losses this week; however, the heart of the city’s town is intact. The structures along Gatlinburg’s main strip still stand, including Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, Ole Smoky Distillery, the Gatlinburg Space Needle, and the Convention Center.
According to Carbo, the area is a destination that spans generations. “We have people who have been coming here since they were children and they’re now bringing their own kids. Over the past few days, we’ve had a lot of phone calls from those people asking how it is. We have to keep telling them, ‘We’re coming back. You’ll be able to keep on making those same memories for your kids when you come back and see us.’”
And that, say all the tourism officials, is the best way of all that visitors can help: return to the area.
"If you really want to do something for Gatlinburg, come back and visit us,” Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said in a Nov. 30 press conference. To see Werner's full message to visitors, click here.
Eastern Tennessee’s tourism is its biggest industry, and officials want to keep it growing and thriving.
“As we strive to keep our folks working so that they can support themselves and their families, our greater community can help us in several ways,” said Leon Downey, Executive Director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “If you have reservations, don’t cancel; come and see us during Winterfest. Consider us as you make your plans for spring break and next summer’s vacation. This will help us sustain our businesses and jobs.”
“We want people to come back to us,” says David Bounds at Ripken. “Come back here, come back to Rocky Top, come back to the hotels, eat in the restaurants, shop here – help us get back.”
“We’re exhausted,” said Moore. “But we’re still here. Nobody is any more affected than anybody else. I’d say what we’re realizing is that we’re one of the spokes in this really big wheel and that we’re all connected.”