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Tourism rail linking Tabor City with Grand Strand tourists by way of Conway is poised to take a $250,000 step forward, with tentative approval of a US Department of Agriculture Rural Business Development Grant presented to the Tabor City Council Tuesday.

It’s a step towards a $1.4 million depot critical to the tourism rail dream, Town Manager Al Leonard said after Tuesday’s council meeting.

Final grant approval could come by late next week, Larry Sampson from the USDA’s Lumberton Area Office told council. While the preliminary grant documents indicate a 12-month timetable to build the depot, Sampson said the project can be extended, with two years more likely.

Council and town leaders, still calling tourism rail an idea that is not yet a project, are working to secure the additional $1.14 million the depot is expected to cost, Leonard said.

Mayor Royce Harper signed documents brought by Sampson that spell out the scope of the agreement, sets timelines and reporting regulations.

Nearly all of the preliminary work for the grant is complete, with an environmental review expected to be reviewed and finalized early next week, Sampson said.

“I’m excited for you,” Sampson told council.

In a typical year the USDA funds about $1 million in Rural Business Development grants across the state of North Carolina. Tabor City is poised to receive a quarter of the state’s total for the depot project.

It’s not the depot that spurred interest from the USDA, but its potential to spark interest around it, small businesses that could develop to serve tourists brought by train from a hub in Conway.

Grant documents say the depot “will support the development of small and emerging private business enterprises in rural areas.”

Much being done

Leaders from Conway and Tabor City visited other rail tourist towns in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee in April 2018, with particular focus on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway that connects Blue Ridge, Georgia with McCaysville, also in Georgia, and Copper Hill, Tennessee, which is connected to McCaysville. The towns share a main street and have seen an economic turnaround fueled by rail tourism.

Rail line owned by R.J. Corman Railroad links Tabor City and Conway, but fell into disrepair under a previous owner and hasn’t been able to handle passenger traffic, or move locomotives fast enough to make an hour’s ride between the municipalities possible.

Corman leaders have not committed to the project, Leonard said Tuesday, but have allowed exploration of the project to continue as improvements to the tracks continue.

Groundbreaking took place in Conway in February, marking the start of a $17.5 million federally funded project to improve the Croman lines in the Carolinas.

Leaders along the Blue Ridge line said restaurants with mixed drink licenses have multiplied there, catering to tourists and locals. That’s now possible in Tabor City, with a mixed drink referendum approved by town voters by an 11-vote margin last November.

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