Conway could soon be a tourist railway hub, taking passengers from here to Tabor City, N.C., and even possibly obtaining licensure to host Polar Express or Thomas the Train excursions.
In April, select city officials and delegates spent a weekend traveling through Dillsboro, N.C, Blue Ridge, Ga., McCaysville, Ga., and Copperhill, Tenn., to see how railway tourism benefitted those towns.
Adam Emrick, Conway city administrator, was one of those officials on board.
He said that while the cities they visited were a bit different than Conway, in that they were truly struggling before the implementation of railway tourism, it was neat to see the great economic impact the excursions made on the towns.
“The train would be a real kick,” Emrick said. “It might be that push that gets us to the next level.”
Emrick admits that at first Conway delegates were very skeptical of the idea, but the further they got into the discussion, the better it sounded.
“It’s got some really neat potential for the city,” Emrick said.
Devin Parks, director for economic development and government relations for the Conway Chamber of Commerce, also went along for the ride.
“It basically changed those cities. It completely changed the economic dynamic,” Parks said. “We would play the role of the hub. I thought it was a negative at first, but…being the hub is an advantage.”
Stone Consulting of Warren, Pa., recently completed a feasibility study on the subject, which was funded by a 50-50 grant from the Economic Development Administration.
The study was done “to see if the entire region can absorb and sustain such an attraction,” particularly since it is a few miles inland from a beachfront destination.
According to the study, Myrtle Beach’s “2020” initiative that is aiming for 20 million visitors by 2020 “very well may be attainable” and those visitors could take advantage of a variety of railway excursions, including veteran trips, organized school trips, lunch and shopping special trips and possible dinner trains with the option of obtaining licensure to host Thomas the Train and Polar Express special events.
These two events are very popular with young children, where TV character Thomas the Train visits and special activities take place on the ride. The Polar Express event is based on the popular children’s book and movie, and takes place around the holidays. Children are encouraged to wear their pajamas, and have hot chocolate on the train, along with other activities. Currently the closest place the Polar Express takes place is western North Carolina on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.
“Quite often, better than 50 percent of a tourist railroad’s annual traffic is generated by Thomas weekends and Polar Express event activity,” the study said.
The typical railway trip would be a ride to Tabor City, with a two-hour layover in town, then the return trip to Conway.
The study focuses a section on Conway, highlighting the fact that once the railroad crosses the Waccamaw River, “it enters the most historic portion of Conway, surrounded by restored historic buildings, the scenic riverwalk area, the current marina, boat dock area and significant public space and parking.”
The study discovered that Conway already has everything it needs to accommodate railway tourism.
“While it would be a nice feature to have a historic depot in this area, it is essentially unnecessary at least at startup,” the study said. “Every other feature that is necessary for a visitor intercept area is already there in an accessible and pleasant location…it will also effectively funnel visitor traffic into the downtown, producing economic impacts.”
Emrick said that if the train were to come in tomorrow, Conway would be able to accommodate it, with very little extra infrastructure needed.
“We don’t anticipate there being a lot of out-of-pocket expenses, although we might want to [do more to] beautify the public spaces,” Emrick said.
Don’t get in line for tickets just yet, though. The study said that RJ Corman (RJC), owner of the railroad, would need at least two years to finish repairs to the railway before it would be ready to embark on these tourist excursions.
RJC obtained a TIGER grant to help rehab the 25 miles of track between Tabor City and Conway, which includes the following needed repairs, according to the feasibility study: replacement of 58,480 ties; ballast; 8.8 miles of rail; 205 switch ties; 74 miles of surfacing; 29 crossing rehabilitations; three signal warning system upgrades; and eight bridge rehabilitations, which would consist of replacement of stringer spans, bridge ties and one bridge replacement.
The TIGER grant was awarded to Horry County, with RJ Corman as the sub-recipient, Bivins said. It was applied for in April 2016, and awarded in July 2016.
The total refurbishment project will cost $17.56 million, Bivins said, and the official name of the project is “Moving the Carolinas Forward: A Rural Freight Rail Project.”
Of that total, the federal funding portion takes care of $9.7 million, RJ Corman is putting up $3.5 million, and the S.C. Department of Commerce is committing $4.3 million, according to Bivins.
It is still much too early, according to the study, to say whether RJC will conduct the excursion operations themselves or not. They also have the option to lease or subcontract to a third party, either a for-profit or nonprofit, the study said.
Conway, though, is in a great position in terms of readying itself for the upcoming attractions.
“…passenger necessities -- parking, restrooms, safe boarding area, and a generally welcoming and interesting area, are already present,” the study said. “It is sufficiently large enough to serve as a special event site as good as any seen nationally.”
Emrick said that the city is always looking to improve tourism aspects of the city, without losing Conway’s authenticity.
“This is 100 percent authentic…exactly what we’re trying to sell,” Emrick said.