CARNIVAL AND SPLENDOR AT THE GATEWAY TO THE SMOKIES
By Anne Berryman for The New York Times
December 5, 2005
GATLINBURG, where 3,400 people live year-round and a few million drop in, has the classic split personality of a frenetic tourist town set in a beautiful place. You can walk away the morning on a quiet trail where winter sunlight filters through a canopy of bare branches, and spend the afternoon scooping up plastic rabbits in a crowded souvenir shop or staring at sharks in Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. Wiry, unshaven hikers pitch red nylon tents in splendid isolation on cloud-topped ridges, while down below, lines of cars snake their way toward town.
Over this ambiguous mix hangs the majesty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which encloses Gatlinburg on three sides.
Vacation houses, often called chalets or cabins, dot the mountainsides beyond the center of town. Some are cozy log structures tucked into hollows or next to rocky creeks that swish through banks of mountain laurel. In others, expansive walls of glass overlook spectacular views of preserved parkland or the twinkling lights of the town.
Before George Montgomery, 48, a Cincinnati lawyer, and his wife, Linda, 47, bought their 1,500-square-foot condo in Gatlinburg two years ago, they had already been vacationing there for more than a dozen years.
With their four children, they have gone white-water rafting, bounced on inner tubes down a snowy mountainside, hiked trails, shot miniature rounds at Hillbilly Golf (where outhouses are among the hazards), and dug into prime rib at the Park Grill as a pianist played Mozart. In Pigeon Forge, 15 miles north, they've taken in car shows and Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, a dinner theater incorporating equestrian talent.
"We particularly enjoy January, February and March," Mr. Montgomery said, when the weather is mild compared with Cincinnati's. They make the five-hour trek at least once a month and have a network of friends, he said, "just like back home."
Hardy Martin, 69, and his wife, Wanda, try to spend at least half their weekends in their three-bedroom contemporary house overlooking Ober Gatlinburg, a ski resort. Their main home is in Louisville, Ky., where his company, Innovative Electronic Designs, has designed sound systems for airports and the New York City subways. "We've hiked all over the place down there," Mr. Martin said in a telephone interview.
Relaxation is the Martins' goal in Gatlinburg, but excitement can arise unexpectedly. "Can you imagine opening your garage door and having a bear standing there looking at you?" Mr. Martin asked. When it happened to him, all parties stayed calm. He told the bear, "Go, go," he said, and it "just walked out of the driveway."
The national park shapes Gatlinburg, which serves as one of its major entry points. Mixing with the more casual tourists looking over the Hollywood StarCars Museum or holding hands at the bar in Calhoun's Restaurant are backpackers taking a break from the 850 miles of park trails and anglers heading out to 2,115 miles of streams.
Sylvester Kiger, 71, a Lexington, Ky., racehorse insurer who travels widely for work, is one of many second-home owners attracted by the park. His two-bedroom house has a deck and a mountain view. "I like to hike, I like to fish," he said. He also enjoyed the park nature class, which introduced him to synchronized fireflies, an unusual breed that blinks in unison; his deck party in June featured a trip to the park to see the fireflies' synchronal flashes.
The mountains also draw artists. Karen Green, gallery coordinator for Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, around which Gatlinburg's tourist attractions have somewhat incongruously grown, was busy one day last month packing up an enamel exhibit in which artists from around the world had shown their work. Some serious artisans, she said, worry that the town's touristy image may detract from their craft.
But not all do. "I love it," Amy Santoferraro, 25, a resident artist at Arrowmont, said of what she called the town's paradigm. "It's honestly shaped the way I look at the world and at art." She revels in watching people enjoy the amusements and trinkets.
No fashionistas walked the streets of Gatlinburg one day in late fall. The mostly middle-aged crowds looked comfortable in jeans and sweatshirts. Formally dressed brides and grooms, however, also seemed to be everywhere. With 25 wedding chapels, Gatlinburg is an Appalachian Las Vegas, routinely drawing couples from as far away as Japan.
Property taxes are low, about 17.77 cents per $100 of assessed value, according to Cindy Ogle, the city manager. That means, said Jeff Schoenfield, who owns ReMax All Pro Realtors in Gatlinburg, "you can estimate approximately $400 per year in total property tax per $100,000 market value."
Crime rates are also low; the police department has 45 officers. Gatlinburg also cultivates a wholesome atmosphere by requiring establishments serving beer to serve food as well and to close by 1 a.m.
The city supplements the abundant recreational opportunities of the park, private golf courses, white-water and horseback riding businesses and the like, by stocking a stream in town with rainbow trout and maintaining three parks and a community center with racquetball courts and an indoor swimming pool.
People and their cars crowd town, especially on summer weekends, and the carnival atmosphere can be overwhelming.
Although Gatlinburg itself and a planning region extending five miles from the city's edge have land-use regulations and zoning, as do some other parts of Sevier County, countywide zoning is not yet in place.
The Real Estate Market
On a typical day in November, 88 condominiums were for sale, at prices ranging from $49,900 to $849,000. So were 471 houses, from an older home for $40,000 to a four-bedroom, three-bathroom, 4,400-square-foot log house for $1.3 million.
Second homes are the engine driving Gatlinburg's real estate business, and many are rented out at least part of the time. "It's possible to rent a home over 200 nights a year," Mr. Schoenfield said, though "all the amenities have to be right." Short-term rentals are very common, and some neighborhoods allow overnight rentals.
Luxury homes with views can appreciate up to 10 percent in a year, said Jason White, an agent at Century 21 Four Seasons Realty, while prices for older homes in need of updating have stayed flat the last few years.
Just outside the city limits, roads are being developed for Norton Creek, a new neighborhood where lots start at $250,000 and rise to $600,000. This is the first neighborhood in Gatlinburg where each lot is surrounded by green space and there is no common property line between owners. "I'd say 80 percent of that neighborhood is going to be second-home owners," Mr. White said.