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I-40 rock slide causes holiday slump for tourist towns

The Small Business Administration announced this week it will offer disaster loans to companies affected by a massive rock slide that has closed I-40 near the Tennessee border. But North Carolina's mountain towns will need more than loans to keep them afloat this winter. WFAE's Julie Rose reports: The small gas stations, diners and hotels in Maggie Valley, North Carolina count on the holidays for a boost - especially Thanksgiving weekend, when the nearby Cataloochee ski resort opens. "Maggie Valley is basically a tourism town," says Teresa Smith, president of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. "I mean, that is what we do here." Smith is also the General Manager of the Maggie Valley Inn. It's the closest hotel off I-40 for travelers coming over from Tennessee, except boulders the size of mobile homes are now blocking the road. "This time last year I had 18 rooms filled," says Smith. "This year I have 3." Smith says businesses already hurt by the recession are cutting back further to survive the four or five months until the interstate reopens. And she doubts low-interest disaster loans from the Small Business Administration will help much. "A lot of them have said, 'It's not really gonna help me because I'm not gonna have the resources to pay it back,'" says Smith. Since the rock slide isn't blocking access from the east and south, mountain towns are hoping to attract business from that direction. But word hasn't gotten out. "It really is a perception that 'Gosh, you know I can't get there. Well, but you can." says Mark Clasby of the Haywood County Economic Development Office. "You know if you're in Birmingham, Atlanta, Charlotte or Raleigh, business is open and you still can get here." The misperception wasn't helped by flashing road signs that, until recently, were directing people off the freeway long before the actual rock slide. That left towns like Maggie Valley without traffic in either direction for several weeks. Clasby says the detour is also hurting the paper mill and other big employers in the region. "The impact for them is in the transportation and logistic costs - getting their products either from or to their location," says Clasby. On the flip side, he says that can be good for travelers: Fewer trucks on I-40 make the drive a lot more scenic.