Sevier County leader optimistic about economic future

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SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters is hopeful the tourism hub will be breaking records again, although he believes recovery may take longer than many predict.

A gradual reopening, set eight days away, comes after weeks of daily collaboration and planning between Waters, city mayors, and city managers, throughout the county.

He supports the slow reopening and believes, with guidance from the federal and state government, they can be successful.

He believes occupancy limits, encouraging visitors not to visit if they’re sick, and pre-screening tourists ahead of time will help.

He described a business community that is actively working to implement the preventative measures, as he said the know it’s “good business.” As they slowly reopen, he also believes the flow of visitors will also take time. “Even though they have been cooped up so to speak for a while, they’re still not going to feel comfortable until they feel like it’s safe,” he said.

“You can’t assure folks 100% that we’re not going to have a spike in cases. You can’t assure them that nobody will come here that’s infected. But, you can assure them that we’re going to do everything that can reasonably be done to provide for the safety and the health of our citizens, our workers, and our visitors.”

He also said they may have to do more, if their efforts are not enough to make people feel comfortable.

Though their current plan is to begin accepting visitors May 1, Waters said tourism groups around the county are not advertising. That will come, he explained, when and if these gradual measured are determined to be successful.

Marcus Watson, the Marketing Manager for Gatlinburg’s SkyLift Park, is optimistic about reopening under health guidelines.

“I think once, not just the businesses and attractions, but people in general see there are guidelines in place and they accept this is what we will have to follow to get the benefit of being out in nature, once they understand what that is clearly, I think everyone will see a great success, as far as everybody coming back,” Watson said.

Watson said the SkyLift, which closed temporarily after the Sevier County Wildfires, has overcome challenges in the past and will overcome this, too: “We’re back better than ever, Gatlinburg is back better than ever, that’s why I think once we get through this, it’s just going to be better than ever and the trend will continue.”

Mayor Waters calls this the county’s greatest challenge in his 41 years at the helm, but he is also hopeful.

“Since the fires, we’ve had a great couple of tourism years, I think we’ll have that again, but it’s going to take some time and some effort for us to work through some of these issue, and particularly the safety issue,” he said.

He doesn’t know what the exact loss in sales tax revenue will be, though he said that will primarily hurt city government budgets and schools. To prepare, he’s frozen new purchases and new positions for the county. The county has not had to furlough anyone yet, and Waters said he hopes he doesn’t have to.

A property tax increase, Waters said, is off the table during a time when people are laid off and businesses are struggling.

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