Rick Holmes: Return trip to community shows changes

May. 14, 2013 @ 11:56 PM

I left Sevier County in 1985, after five years spent reporting the news and voicing my opinions in The Mountain Press. I wouldn’t say I never looked back, for I thought often and positively about my years here. But I never got around to coming back — until April.

Like Rip Van Winkle awakening from his 20-year slumber, my return provides an interesting perspective.

“You won’t believe how it’s changed,” people told us, and indeed it has. Brand new neighborhoods have replaced acres of farmland. When I lived here, the Pigeon Forge tourism district began at Ogle’s Water Park, at the corner of Wears Valley Road. Now it stretches uninterrupted clear through Sevierville.

Pittman Center was young back then, still being run by its legendary first mayor, Conley Huskey. Now it’s mature and seems secure in its identity. Seymour and Kodak were unincorporated villages; now they have thriving commercial districts.

I was impressed by changes that show sound planning by active government. I was pleased to find a campus of Walters State Community College that hadn’t been there when I left. I was impressed by Sevierville’s new golf course/convention center complex and the municipal complex along the new Gary Wade Boulevard.

I remember then-Mayor Gary Wade talking about his vision for extending Bruce Street to the then-new Community Center. I’m proud to say I knew Gary Wade before he was a boulevard, just as I knew Conley Huskey before he was a bridge on East Parkway.

I was especially impressed by the new road system intended to relieve the Parkway traffic. I can’t judge from a week in April how well the system works in July, but I applaud the effort. People in Washington talk a lot about public investment to spur economic development and improve the quality of life. Sevier County seems to be doing it.

All the roads I used were in far better shape than 30 years ago, and the roadsides cleaner than I remember. Sevier County has gotten more serious about litter, and it shows.

But much is still the same in Sevier County. Gatlinburg still thinks of itself as the classier destination, more tuned into the National Park than its neighbors. Pigeon Forge is still shamelessly commercial, happily tasteless and plenty of fun. Its current slogan – “the Land of More” – is right on target.

Sevierville is still figuring out how to capitalize on the tourist economy without being subsumed by it.

Sevierville is thriving, though I was disappointed to see Bruce Street isn’t what we remembered from the days when Newman’s Café was among our favorite hangouts. I was also surprised it was so hard to find live music outside of Dollywood and the slick theater shows. We enjoyed some fine bluegrass by Hurricane Ridge at the Ole Smoky Distillery, but you’d think with all the great musicians and potential customers around, the area could support a honkytonk, a blues club or other music venues. Maybe on Bruce Street.

I was pleased and a little surprised to see that the real good ol’ boys still wear bib overalls. For all the development – Sevier County’s population has doubled since we lived there – if you get far enough back in the hollers, it feels like nothing’s changed.

Here’s another thing that hasn’t changed. From the size of some of the houses I saw, a few people are still getting rich in Sevier County. But with a poverty rate of 13.5 percent, a lot of others are just getting by, squeezed by low wages, part-time and seasonal work. “You still can’t make any money around here,” an old friend told me.

Fortunately, the best things about Sevier County are still free: the wildflowers that carpet the woodlands in spring, the mists that rise magically from the meadows and creeks, the natural beauty, rich cultural heritage and the most friendly people I’ve ever had the pleasure to live among.

It’s a place I plan to keep coming back to, only next time I won’t wait so long.

— Rick Holmes, county news editor for The Mountain Press from 1980 to 1985, is opinion editor for The MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Mass., and a columnist for GateHouse News Service. He can be reached at r.holmes@charter.net.