Smokies fire comes at ‘one of the worst times’ for business owners who depend on tourists

Eggs and meat sizzled on the grill of a country kitchen Wednesday while, a half mile up Wears Valley Road, hands sifted through barrels of classic candies and hunted for their initials on leather keychains near the register of a rustic general store.

It seems like business as usual. But entrepreneurs in the valley are beginning to wonder how the recent devastating wildfire on Hatcher Mountain, which burned for nearly a week and damaged over 200 structures, will hurt future sales.

While no deaths have been reported, it’s still hard to think about money when neighbors are suffering — and when the exact financial impacts are still unknown just days after the last of the flames were doused.

But basic economics will tell you fewer cabins means a smaller customer base, which is especially problematic in an area like Wears Valley, where many homes accommodate tourists ready to spend their vacation savings year after year in the peace of the mountains.

We talked to homeowners and business owners about the effects of the fire, and about how they plan to move on — emotionally and physically.

Tennessee wildfires: With fire nearly contained, homeowners take stock of damage

Patrick Vaughn – Von Bryan Estate

Eleven bedrooms, a six-person wet bar, two hot tubs and one movie theater.

Now, all that remains at the Von Bryan Estate at the top of Hatcher Mountain Road is piles or rubble and melted fire engines left behind by first responders who, according to Patrick Vaughn, narrowly escaped with their lives.

Vaughn is co-owner of the 10,000-square-foot estate, which has been a family business since 1988. It started as a bed and breakfast when the trend was at its peak and, since then, the family has made it a point to regularly add new rooms and amenities to the property.

Before it burned, the home could accommodate 42 people.

“Walking around what’s left of it up there, I can see places where I built the deck or I remodeled that bedroom,” he told Knox News. “It’s very difficult.”

Vaughn estimates the family invested between $200,000 and $300,000 for improvements in that past three years alone. They were poised to have their best year yet, and not just by the number of nights rented.

The improvements allowed the family to significantly increase nightly rates, which is helpful as the homeowners rely on the estate as their main source of income.

“If we are able to rebuild, I don’t see it being finished for three or four years,” Vaughn said.

Von Bryan Estate co-owner Patrick Vaughn walks through burned firefighting engines that battled the Hatcher Mountain/Indigo Lane wildfire last week at his Wears Valley property, which was vacant at the time of the fire. Vaughn, who told Knox News he took the cover off the pool just one day prior to the blaze, believes his niece staying in a nearby cabin might have been the first one to report fires in the area.

Von Bryan Estate co-owner Patrick Vaughn walks through burned firefighting engines that battled the Hatcher Mountain/Indigo Lane wildfire last week at his Wears Valley property, which was vacant at the time of the fire. Vaughn, who told Knox News he took the cover off the pool just one day prior to the blaze, believes his niece staying in a nearby cabin might have been the first one to report fires in the area.

The family was told it could receive one year’s worth of reimbursements. Vaughn said they stretch it as much as they can, but he doubts it will last through the rebuilding.

“I have never dealt with this kind of thing before,” he said. “I do know building materials have doubled or tripled in cost over the past few years. That (insurance) maximum may not be enough to be able to replace. That’s still kind of up in the air.”

Michael Miller of RE/MAX Cove Mountain Realty & Cabin Rentals said he knows of a one-bedroom cabin built 30 years ago for $62,000. The owner imagined $75,000 worth of fire insurance would be plenty.

Fortunately, that cabin did not burn down during the fire. The cost of rebuilding would be closer to $250,000 with the increase in building costs, Miller said.

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Michael Miller – RE/MAX Cove Mountain Realty & Cabin Rentals

Michael Miller told Knox News he manages 60 rental cabins in the Wears Valley Area. Forty-five of those were evacuated, and two were destroyed.

Michael Miller of RE/MAX Cove Mountain Realty & Cabin Rentals manages 60 cabins in the Wears Valley area, including 45 that were evacuated and two that were destroyed. He anticipates remaining cabins will begin charging higher fees due to the shift in supply and demand.

Michael Miller of RE/MAX Cove Mountain Realty & Cabin Rentals manages 60 cabins in the Wears Valley area, including 45 that were evacuated and two that were destroyed. He anticipates remaining cabins will begin charging higher fees due to the shift in supply and demand.

While destroyed cabins will impact his business, the fire has even bigger implications for the owners.

“That’s what they make their house payments with, their utility payments with,” he said. “And now, they don’t have that.”

Some future guests have called Miller to say they are no longer coming for vacation and may stop visiting the area altogether. He believes it’s a “knee-jerk” reaction and that people will be ready to visit again once the fire disappears from their news feeds.

Miller was “slapped full” for spring break rentals when the fire broke out, which meant he had nowhere to send people evacuating.

“Yes, we were able to get them to safety and gave them a full refund for their stay, but it could be a longer time before they get that money back into their account,” he said.

With fewer cabins now in the area, Miller anticipates a 10-15% increase in rental costs due to the supply and demand shift.

Some owners, frustrated by the financial situation, might not rebuild.

“Timing wise, it was probably one of the worst times because we are so busy,” he said.

Al Wilson – Wears Valley General Store

Al Wilson readily admits nothing in his store is a necessity. He sells old-fashioned candy, antique furniture and Smokies-themed souvenirs, among other knickknacks.

Now in his 17th season, Wilson said he already was predicting a slower year due to increased gas prices.

Al Wilson, manager of Wears Valley General Store, is in his 17th season and was already expecting slower business due to increased gas prices. However, with less cabins in the area following the recent wildfire, one of his biggest business concerns is people will not branch out to shop at his store and will instead shop closer to where they are staying.

Al Wilson, manager of Wears Valley General Store, is in his 17th season and was already expecting slower business due to increased gas prices. However, with less cabins in the area following the recent wildfire, one of his biggest business concerns is people will not branch out to shop at his store and will instead shop closer to where they are staying.

“(Tourists) are going to cut somebody out of the budget,” he said. “And no offense meant for myself because I order everything in here but … it’s an impulse.”

Eighty percent of the customers who stop in Wears Valley General Store during an average year are tourists, he said. Many of those customers stay in nearby cabins, some of which were at least partially destroyed.

If people can’t stay in Wears Valley following the fires, Wilson believes it’s likely they will shop closer to their cabins and hotels.

His preliminary projections include a 10-15% decrease in business after the fires.

“We’re in kind of a holding period right now,” he said. “Just waiting to see how it is going to affect it.”

Mary Lou Shinlever – Grandmothers Kitchen

Even though Mary Lou Shinlever has been in business 27 years, it can be hard to differentiate tourists from locals, except those who come daily to Grandmothers Kitchen.

In the wake of the Wears Valley wildfire, she is relying on faith.

“I’m not concerned about anything because God is my life,” she told Knox News. “If the impact from that (fire) slows my business down, God is going to send more than what I would have lost up there. That’s my focus, and it always has been.”

Grandmothers Kitchen has been in business 27 years but has never experienced a wildfire like the one that started March 30. Owner Mary Lou Shinlever said a prayer as the fire began breaking out, just as she did in 2016, believing God has the power to intervene and to continue providing customers.

Grandmothers Kitchen has been in business 27 years but has never experienced a wildfire like the one that started March 30. Owner Mary Lou Shinlever said a prayer as the fire began breaking out, just as she did in 2016, believing God has the power to intervene and to continue providing customers.

Shinlever said she prayed for all the “dwellings” when she realized a fire had broke out. Her home was safe, but her nearby storage building — not a dwelling — was burned.

Shinlever said a similar prayer when she woke up in 2016 and saw the light from nearby wildfires in the distance.

“God intervened, and the wind shifted,” she said. “At 3 o’clock I laid down and I went to sleep, and I got up and I come to work at 6 o’clock. He intervened then, and he intervened this time.”

Grandmothers Kitchen was closed Thursday through Sunday after the fires broke out.

Joe Socha – Wears Valley Social

The Wears Valley Social Food Truck Park provided food for firefighters and others in need of a meal during the blaze.

Owner Joe Socha, who also owns the Chicken Coop food truck with his wife, has been working hand-in-hand with the Salvation Army since the fires started.

Joe Socha, owner of Wears Valley Social Food Truck Park, has only been back in business a few days after the recent wildfires in East Tennessee. The food truck park recently underwent renovations to provide a children's play area, he said, but only time will tell how the fires will impact business.

Joe Socha, owner of Wears Valley Social Food Truck Park, has only been back in business a few days after the recent wildfires in East Tennessee. The food truck park recently underwent renovations to provide a children’s play area, he said, but only time will tell how the fires will impact business.

“As a part of this community and depending on this community for what we do, I’m willing to do anything I can to help them,” he said.

Still, only about 40% of his customers are locals during peak season. The rest of his business, like other shops and restaurants in the area, comes from tourists.

“The support we get from the locals here in Wears Valley and the surrounding areas is really good,” he said. “It’s kind of like anything else — you’ve got to build up a rapport and relationship with them because I think life is always about relationships.”

Business slowed down for a few days because of the fires, he said, and people on spring break might be rethinking their plans.

“We’ve only had food trucks sitting here for three days now,” he told Knox News on Wednesday. “The effects of the fire — I haven’t expected a whole lot (of business). … But I don’t know. People are pulling in here left and right. So, we’ll see what’s happening with business.

“I think it’s just a little too early to speculate.”

Ryan Wilusz: Knoxville’s downtown explorer and urban reporter
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Tennessee wildfires could hurt Wears Valley cabin owners in Smokies