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VOL. 40 | NO. 50 | Friday, December 9, 2016

Fire is the latest challenge for Gatlinburg weddings

By Hollie Deese

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The image went viral, one of the first signs to hit the internet alerting the world Gatlinburg was on fire. Cupid’s Chapel of Love, one of the area’s most iconic little white wedding chapels, was up in flames.

“It’s like losing a courthouse or something. It was kind of a landmark in this city,” says Lee Bennett, chapel owner. “Every time you drive by you see somebody out front taking their picture who got married there 10, 20 years ago.”

Cupid’s Chapel was among more than 1,700 businesses or homes damaged or destroyed and 17,000 acres burned in the area. The death toll stood at 14 earlier this week.

In some areas that were spared, it was back to business as soon as possible. There were wedding chapels hosting events as soon as the day after the fire. A problem for those facilities was finding lodging for guests whose resort rooms or rental cabins had been destroyed.

With Christmas in the offing, there was some urgency in getting the word out about what is open in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the Dollywood theme park, for example.

“I will tell you that this is not the end for Gatlinburg or the end for the Gatlinburg wedding industry because the downtown remained practically intact,’’ says Megan Ownby who owns Above the Mist wedding services with her husband.

“I don’t think it will take too awfully much for them to be up and running again and be the Gatlinburg everybody remembered.”

‘Pile of rubble’

There were no nuptials in the wake of the fire at Cupid’s. Bennett hadn’t yet seen his property two days after the fire, but a fireman snapped a shot and sent it to him.

“What’s left is just a pile of rubble,” he explains. “Tin roof and all, it’s not even a foot high what’s left. I don’t know how heat gets that intense.”

Bennett had bought the chapel from the original owners eight years ago after building Chapel in The Park in 1999. The Park venue is down the road from Cupid’s Chapel.

An East Tennessee native with a masters in theology, Bennett had been pastoring at an inner-city mission in Dallas but he needed a change.

“I had just buried as many as I could bury, so I moved back here,” Bennett recalls.

He began work as a part-time minister at Mountain Valley Wedding Chapel in neighboring Wears Valley. He loved the work so much, and his boss did not want to build a chapel in Gatlinburg. So Bennett built Chapel in the Park. Eight years ago he bought Cupid’s.

“We don’t have the views, but we’re on a three-acre wooded estate,” he says of the surviving Chapel in the Park venue. “Until Cupid’s burned down, we were the largest provider of weddings in Tennessee.

“We’re going to lose quite a bit of those numbers now because Cupid’s did low cost, huge volume. That’ll be interesting to see how that all works out, but it’s a significant amount of business.”

For now, Bennett is offering free upgrades for weddings booked at Cupid’s to have the event at Chapel at the Park. He plans on creating a place for returning couples to take their picture at Cupid’s near the recently-built waterfall. He also will perform ceremonies outside at the falls, possibly calling it Cupid’s Falls.

“The only thing that survived was that sign out front,” he adds. “We’ll be able to keep the name, and people can come and feel like they did when they got married years ago.”

Changing industry

Gatlinburg has always been able to capitalize on its wedding tourism, long known as the Las Vegas of the South thanks to the no-wait period or blood-test requirement to tie the knot.

But other states that have loosened their rules and regulations have eaten into East Tennessee’s marriage business, Bennett says. That might affect whether he decides to rebuild Cupid’s Chapel.

“We just don’t know,” he says. “The industry itself has suffered as far as number of weddings. Twenty years ago we (Gatlinburg) probably did 20,000 weddings a year, and now we probably do 12,000 or 13,000.

“So many more places are offering destination weddings. In fact, in Florida, you have to wait three days to get a license unless you’re from out of state.”

Still, affordability is a large draw to the mountain town, even for people who live in Knoxville, and especially those in Nashville where weddings are considerably more costly.

“For $2,000, you get so much for your money here compared to if you’re in Knoxville, and you’re trying to get a church and a florist and minister and photographer,” he points out.

“Most people pay more for their photographer than they pay for the nicest wedding here. We’ve stayed very successful because somebody who can’t afford a $20,000 wedding can come here for $2,000-$3,000 and get almost what they would’ve gotten for $20,000.”

Post fire, he’s worried about keeping the business of those who are looking for more affordable weddings. His surviving, more expensive location, may not work out for everybody.

The first weekend after the fire, Bennett had three or four cancellations, but it was more about lodging rather than fitting them in at his other location. He has also been fielding lots of emails from people scheduled to come next year worried about what it will be like.

“We’ve lost a few weddings,” he says. “One couple was going to stay at Westgate, and Westgate moved them to Myrtle Beach, so now they have to get married at Myrtle Beach.”

Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort, a 763-room time share community with more than 100 buildings, was caught in the fire. Westgate Resorts founder David Siegel posted on Facebook that many buildings were destroyed by the wildfire, but they have the necessary insurance in place to cover the damage. Reconstruction of the damaged units was starting immediately.

In addition, he posted that the resort core, including the original check-in center, Lodge 1000, waterpark, fitness center and swimming pool were all intact, as well as 352 units in and around the core facility. Their goal was to have the main resort open within 30 days.

While Bennett’s Gatlinburg home was spared, three of his employees lost their homes and so any funds raised now on the chapel’s GoFundMe page are going to help them.

Some spared

Sevier County native Shirley Price and her husband own and live at The Foxtrot Bed and Breakfast on Garrett Lane in Gatlinburg. They opened 12 years ago after retiring.

They host weddings on occasion, as well as accommodate people visiting to attend weddings elsewhere in the area.

“Most of what we do are small weddings, where it’s the couple and their witnesses and the minister because we can only do about 20-25 people max for a wedding,” she explains. “Most of the time it’s elopements.”

On Monday Nov. 28, they said goodbye to their last guest of the weekend at 11 a.m., and at 3:30 p.m. she left with her husband to take their daughter to the airport in Knoxville.

“It was so very, very smoky, but we could not see fire anywhere,” she remembers. “We did not experience what a lot of people did because we left at 3:30. We were able to get down [the mountain], but the smoke was so thick it was hard to breathe outside.”

They dropped their daughter off at the airport but authorities kept them from getting back into Gatlinburg. “When we got to the Food City on 321, we realized that we weren’t going to get home at all and more than likely, there wasn’t a home to go to,” she says.

When they were allowed to head up the mountain to assess the damage on Dec. 2, they were prepared for the worst. “I will tell you that I was very pleasantly surprised,” she points out. “From the pictures we’d been seeing I did not expect to see any houses along Ski Mountain Road. But apparently the fire was very particular. It would burn some houses and leave some houses.”

The Prices’ B&B was saved. The house across the street? Burned to the ground.

“It was just a total, totally miraculous thing that God protected us,” she explains. “We didn’t suffer any fire damage. We had some wind damage, some shingles off. But we had absolutely no fire damage. We still had power too. Our refrigerators were still running. Our heat was still running. We had lights.”

Price has also had a few cancellations, and many people are rescheduling because non-residents are still not allowed to return to the area where the B&B is located.

“The problem exists is that there just won’t be the rental cabins or the homes,” Price says. “There were a lot of people, a lot of residents that lost homes. A lot of our friends. Some of my relatives lost homes in the fire. That’s going to take a while to come back.

“The business portion of it, I believe is going to be okay – if we can just get the word out that Gatlinburg is going to be okay. We looked at the view from our back deck and it was still spectacular.”

Trying to keep business as usual

Barbara Martel is the wedding coordinator for both the Wedding Chapel in the Glades in Gatlinburg’s Arts and Crafts community, and its sister Chapel in the Glen, both on Glades Road. They were putting on weddings as soon as the day after the fire, but she says they have also been getting cancellations because of uncertainty in accommodations.

“Other than that we still have weddings tomorrow and we’ll be running as normal,” she adds.

And while they have not been getting calls to pick up other weddings in the area, they are getting inundated with calls from people who were previously married there hoping to hear they had been spared.

‘They are just frantic to check to make sure the chapels are still here,” she explains. “It’s very special to them. We’ve had three days of nothing but nonstop calls from them.”

The Chapel at the Glades has been open since 1998, and the one in the Glen since 1995. Martel has been with them for two years and says they are constantly busy, during the week and on Saturdays with back-to-back weddings, catering to people from as far as California, Washington State, Canada and even Las Vegas.

“I think it’s just the whole beauty of the mountains and everything that we have around here,” she says. “A lot of people may not come back for a little while because they’ll want to make sure everything is up and running again. But after this weekend, we don’t have any more cancellations so people are still coming in.”

Mountain strong

Mother of six Megan Ownby, 50, runs Above the Mist wedding services with her husband, the Rev. Jeff Ownby, a Gatlinburg native, former Gatlinburg city planner and onetime mayor for the city.

And together they were performing weddings as soon as the day after the fire.

“We did a wedding today, and the bride and groom even said that the way that we brought them up into town, did their wedding and everything, they had not seen what they saw on the news. They would’ve had no idea there was anything going on,” she says.

That wedding was even filmed for the local news station WBIR looking for some feel-good stories among the destruction. It’s an important message to get out, Ownby adds, especially for people with weddings in the area soon

“The fact is, people are getting scared and some want their money back,” she says. “I assure you, where we are, you can’t even tell anything happened. We are completely untouched and have a beautiful mountain-view location over in the Glades area. The Glades area was untouched. Absolutely, you can’t tell anything happened.”

Ownby says no matter if people are coming for Christmas or to get married, locals just need them to come.

“Let me tell you what you can do to help – fulfill your vacation. Don’t cancel. Come. Please come,” she adds. “That is the biggest thing that we are all saying. We’re mountain strong. We’re going to pull this together. We are such a tight community. It’s almost like a huge clique, I can’t even describe it. There’s so much love and we’re just a population of 4,000 people. We’ve become a family.”

And it is not just Gatlinburg, but Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, Wears Valley and more all pulling together to help pick up guests and make any and all weddings continue to happen.

“A lot of the strength that we have in Gatlinburg comes from how strong Pigeon Forge is and vice versa,” Ownby says. “Everybody that’s coming up to Gatlinburg is going to drive through that Pigeon Forge traffic and they’re going to stop and buy taffy and they’re going to stop and have beer. It’s such a well-oiled machine, the way that we work together. Even in a time of destruction, we’re going to pull together like nobody’s ever seen anybody pull together before. We already have.”

Ownby can have weddings anywhere in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park so if people had a wedding planned for Chimney Tops, there are a number of other places to go. And because people are canceling vacations, cabin rentals are opening up for people who may have been displaced otherwise.

And as a photographer who also helps people coordinate photos during family reunions in the mountains, Ownby is offering free family pictures for locals who lost their memories in the fire.

“Any of the people in Sevier County who have lost their home means that they have also lost their pictures and so I, with my company, am donating a free family portrait for any Sevier family who has lost their home. They will get the disk, the CD, the copyrights, they’ll get everything. It will not cost them one dime,” she says.

For her, it’s all part of being mountain strong.

“I wouldn’t move from Gatlinburg for anything, especially now, after watching this and just watching how everybody just pulls together,” Ownby says.

Price agrees, waiting for the city to reopen so they can welcome guests back with open arms.

“Gatlinburg is full of a lot of very, very determined people and people that will succeed,” Price explains. “They are determined to do things and they are determined to do very well at the things they do.”

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