GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — Downtown was packed full of tourists walking on the sidewalks, going into stores and waiting in line for attractions on the day before Thanksgiving.
Only walking along the strip, signs of the wildfires three years prior weren’t noticeable, but locals knew everything looked different then.
Smoke filled the storefronts on the Parkway as the flames inched closer to the businesses. Downtown Gatlinburg had to be evacuated and closed off.
Most of the Parkway escaped damage from the wildfires — residences around Gatlinburg received the most damage.
Marcus Watson, marketing adviser for the Gatlinburg Skylift Park, said when they found out that the top of the attraction was destroyed, they were shocked.
He said some employees lost their homes and the lift had to close for repairs.
Everyone felt the heartache after the fires.
Watson said the fires though, also made the city stronger.
“Everyone banded together and supported each other. Because, in a situation like that, you can either run away from it or band stronger together. That’s something that Gatlinburg, not just the Skylift park, but Gatlinburg alone, that’s what they did,” Watson said.
Watson grew up in Gatlinburg. His dad managed the Skylift for nearly 40 years.
The Skylift was originally a two-seat ride up to the top of the mountain, where visitors could get off and enjoy a gift shop or just take in the views, before riding back down.
It took nearly six months before the lift was back up and running after the fires. The Skylift added upgrades such as a three-seat ride.
“There was enough damage that we had to replace the entire lift. So, helicopters flew in new orange towers, and we brought in new yellow chairs. Everything that you see (at the park), other than the building at the bottom of the street, is completely brand new,” Watson said.
Visitors going up and down the Skylift can still see where the fires left its mark.
“When you do look out you see some of the dead trees. It’s like a scar. You look at the scar and it reminds you of the pain, but it also reminds you of what you’ve gone through,” Watson said.
The new building at the top of the park wasn’t finished until May 2019, which is also when the park opened its new addition: the Skylift Bridge.
Watson also hinted to the Skylift Park expanding one more time.
Others working in the area said that rebuilding became hard at a certain point.
People from all over the state and country were coming to town to help, but then when it was time to rebuild, locals say there weren’t enough contractors available.
Marci Claude, spokesperson for the city, said 68% of the damaged or destroyed structures have been rebuilt, and revenue for the city has been steadily increasing since the fires.
Several businesses have opened in Gatlinburg since the wildfires. Claude said revenue has increased about 14.4% since June 2016.
Many visitors don’t only notice the burnt areas that have yet to regrow; they also noticed how Gatlinburg has rebuilt.
“It certainly gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling to see all these people come back. When it first happened, we said it will never be the same, but clearly it is,” Kathy Grayson, from Indiana, said.
“I think that they rebounded well. I think they were committed to rebuilding the town and getting everybody back here. And, with the amount of crowds that are here, I think they did their job,” Karin Olinger, from Alabama, said.
Gatlinburg still has a lot of rebuilding to do, but Watson said the silver lining of it all is that the fires actually gave a chance for new growth.
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