Gatlinburg beckons vacationers to return as it recovers from wildfires

Matthew Hensley has a message for vacationers from Georgia and across the nation: Gatlinburg is open for business and ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve with a big extravaganza following the deadly wildfires that struck his Tennessee resort town last month.

Hensley is the general manager of the Gatlinburg Space Needle, a 407-foot observation tower that sustained smoke and wind damage during the blazes and was forced to shut down for 11 days. The needle, a family-owned attraction that provides stunning views of the Great Smoky Mountains, has reopened and is set to play a starring role in the annual New Year’s Eve Ball Drop and Fireworks Show Saturday evening. Nearly 50,000 people revelers are expected to turn out for the event at the base of the needle.

“Downtown is intact and we are here and we would love for you all to come up and do the things that everybody likes to come here and do,” said Hensley, who counts many Georgians among the visitors to the Space Needle, “because that is what we like to do is entertain people and take care of them and give them a good time while they are here in Gatlinburg.”

Channel 2's Matt Johnson reports.

Fueled by wind gusts, the Nov. 28 blazes left 14 people dead and caused $500 million in damages, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said. About 2,500 structures in the Gatlinburg area were damaged or destroyed, though downtown Gatlinburg was largely spared. Two juveniles have been charged with aggravated arson in connection with the fire. Many Georgians own homes or vacation in Sevier, which includes Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

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