Sevier County’s massive economic boom spurred by wildfire and pandemic

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Five years ago, Larry Waters saw what he imagines hell looks like when flames fueled by 90-plus mph winds tore through Gatlinburg.

It doesn’t take much to send the Sevier County mayor’s mind back to the tragedy.

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The Chimney Tops 2 fire had started high in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and crept its way out before exploding into the unsuspecting town of Gatlinburg five days later, killing 14 people and damaging over 2,800 structures.

“They say time heals all wounds. Well, it doesn’t,” Waters told Knox News from his Sevierville office last month. “It may make you not think of them as often, but the fact that we lost 14 lives, the fact that so many people lost so much is always there and always will be.

“You regret that it happened, and you regret that lives were lost, and you pray for those families, but it’s something that will always be with everyone involved. I think we’ve moved on, but we still remember.”

From that hurt and the public grieving, however, sprung an economic boom as impressive as the region has ever seen. Literally from the ashes, Sevier County and Gatlinburg have experienced a rebirth.

It’s evident in the crowded strip in downtown Gatlinburg where it’s faster to walk than get get stuck in a traffic jam trying to find parking. You see it in new hotels and always crowded attractions like Anakeesta and the Gatlinburg SkyBridge.

“They say time heals all wounds. Well, it doesn’t,” Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said about the deadly Gatlinburg wildfires. But, he said, the community has come together in an effort to rebuild.

And you see it in places like the new Mountain Brook Apartments in the Baskins Creek area, which were built atop a pile of torched ruins on the southern edge of town.

By the numbers

So much of the boom has been driven, as it always is, by visitors to the national park. The Smokies, home of the most visited national park in the country, had 12.5 million visitors in 2019 and over 12 million in 2020 even with a condensed calendar due to COVID-19 closures. The park is on pace to top 13 million this year.

While the pandemic kept tourists away from traditional big-city attractions like museums and theaters, heading to the outdoors was a healthier options. For millions within driving distance, that meant the Smokies.  

Those visitors and the money they spend — largely funneled through the Gatlinburg/Sevier County tourism apparatus — is what funds the community.

For Gatlinburg, that looks like the gross receipt revenue tax, paid by local businesses, and the lodging revenue tax, paid by visitors. Both have rebounded and are at record highs after dipping in the wake of the fire, a turnaround that exceeded all expectations of leaders.

The Mountain Brook apartment complex, shown at the bottom of the image, was built where a 2016 fire destroyed numerous buildings in the Cherokee Orchard Road area in Gatlinburg. Tourist destination Anakeesta can be seen on top of the ridge in the upper right hand corner.

The number of visitors slowed down in the first part of 2020. But the pandemic also brought a wave of families to the fresh air of the mountains.

The numbers have boomed in the last 12 months. The years below end June 30:

Total gross receipt revenues (in millions)

  • 2014-15, $62.7
  • 2015-16, $67.8
  • 2016-17, $57.1
  • 2017-18, $67.5
  • 2018-19, $82.1
  • 2019-20, $83.5
  • 2020-21, $118.8

Total lodging revenue (in millions)

  • 2014-15, $22.1
  • 2015-16, $22.8
  • 2016-17, $18.1
  • 2017-18, $21.6
  • 2018-19, $25.8
  • 2019-20, $24.7
  • 2020-21, $37.5

For wider Sevier County, the story is much the same. Average occupancy rates for overnight rentals, not hotels, inside the county (not including Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Gatlinburg) for the entire year averaged a tick over 50% in 2015.

Tourists walk up and down the Parkway in downtown Gatlinburg earlier this month.

The number includes low tourism months like January and February (mid-20%) as well as heavy seasons like July and October (up to 75%). The number dipped to 48% in 2016 and remained relatively low in 2017. By the end of the year, the county expects 2021 to end at 67% occupancy.

Similarly, the county’s lodging tax revenue from overnight rentals outside city limits has more than doubled since 2016 when it brought in $6.5 million. Through the end of October, this year’s figure is at $13.7 million. It will likely exceed $16 million this year.

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