Sevier County fighting false impressions after wildfires


SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. - With vacation season here, the Gatlinburg area is trying to rebound its tourism numbers and dollars. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and all of Sevier County are seeing those numbers sag after last year's devastating wildfires.

"Our only industry is tourism," Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said. "Without people, we really suffer."

Those wildfires killed 14 people, destroyed 2,400 buildings and burned 17,000 acres across Sevier County in November.

Officials say first impressions are everything that those early images showing downtown filled will smoke left the impression it was destroyed but it's not."

"Come and visit," said Ellen Wilhoit, president of Mountain Tough Recovery. "People got the misconception that Gatlinburg was closed and all of this stuff was burned down, it's not, we're alive and well."

This is where a multi-million dollar advertising campaign is stepping in. The state is pouring in over $10 million attempting to entice people to vacation again here.

"We are a non-income tax state so we rely heavily on sales tax," Tennessee Commissioner of Tourism Development Kevin Triplett said. "And a large part of that is through tourism."

Messages are airing on television stations not only locally but well beyond our region. Sevier County is third in the state for generating tourism revenue.

"The governor and the legislature partnered together for some additional dollars for the marketing of Sevier County," Triplett said. "That was unprecedented."

They believe the message is getting out and tourists are starting to come back, but official numbers lag behind by several weeks or even months.

Another problem Sevier County is facing is finding employees. Many workers left and found jobs in other cities after the fire. Now, many businesses are struggling to find enough workers.

Only time will tell how long the recovery will take.