Photo above: Logan McCabe of Bristol Motor Speedway and Steve Smith of K-VA-T Food Stores (Food City) announced a campaign to raise funds for Sevier County disaster relief. Photo by Scott Robertson
By Scott Robertson
The wildfires that swept through areas of Sevier County, Tenn., including parts of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park took a tremendous toll in terms of lives lost, property destroyed and a significant part of Tennessee’s sales tax-based economy damaged. For all those reasons, businesses that serve communities in Northeast Tennessee, less than an hour from Sevier County, were quick to offer aid and assistance to those affected by the fires.
Within 48 hours of the blaze, K-VA-T Food Stores (Food City) and Bristol Motor Speedway had announced plans to start a fund that would be donated directly to relief efforts. Food City, in fact, held concurrent press conferences to announce the effort at its stores in Bristol, Gatlinburg and Hazard, Ky. “(Bristol, Knoxville and Hazard) are strong markets from which people travel to the Gatlinburg area,” said Steve Smith, K-VA-T Food Stores president.
“From companies to whom much is given, much is expected,” Smith said. “It’s part of our culture that we only succeed when our communities succeed. Right now the communities in Sevier County are hurting, and they’re hurting bad. So we’re stepping up with $50,000 from our company to seed this Gatlinburg – Sevier County Relief Fund,” Smith said. “For the next week we’re going to ask our associates, our customers and our vendors to participate in that fund. They can do so through our cash registers at more than 100 of our supermarkets.”
Smith said his company knows first-hand of the devastation in the Gatlinburg area. “Five of our associates down there lost their homes – and those are just the ones we know about. Communications are still not good there.”
The company operates five stores in the county with more than 700 total employees. “We’ve done business there for more than 30 years,” Smith said. “We’ve been there since 1984. We have a big employee base there. It’s part home to us. It’s a very beautiful area we’ve all enjoyed over the years, and we just want to help them get started in the right direction on a recovery. This is just something we think our customers will be glad to have the chance to do, to donate a dollar, two dollars, five dollars at our stores to help this cause.”
Bristol Motor Speedway announced it would make a matching donation to the fund for every dollar raised for Speedway Children’s Charities through the Speedway in Lights program on Dec. 1. “We’re still going to give the proceeds to Speedway Children’s Charities, but we’re going to take a match and donate it to this fund. Whatever that number is, we’re hopeful that it will increase the number of cars coming in by offering a way to help these citizens who are in desperate need right now.”
“The other part of that,” McCabe said, “is that we’re going to have buckets out until the end of Speedway in Lights on Jan. 7 for people who want to donate, and if someone lives out-of-market and wants to donate, they can call the speedway and we’ll set up an account to donate in their name to the fund.”
Other businesses also made sizable donations and asked their patrons to do what they could to help. The First Tennessee Foundation announced it would match donations from the public to the East Tennessee Red Cross, up to a total of $50,000, made through any First Tennessee financial center across the state.
Kroger’s Mid-Atlantic Division announced it too would ask shoppers at its Tri-Cities locations to donate to provide aid to those affected by the Smoky Mountain Fires through the American Red Cross. “Our customers in Tri-Cities and our associates at our four stores have a long history of giving during times of disasters,” said Allison McGee, spokesperson for Kroger’s Mid-Atlantic Division. “We want to help our friends in the adjoining area of East Tennessee.” In addition, Kroger announced it would make a $10,000 corporate contribution to relief efforts.
Smith acknowledged the good work being done by the Red Cross, but said the Gatlinburg-Sevier County Relief Fund proceeds would be funneled through local officials to insure 100 percent of the money went into local efforts in those communities. “We’re working with the mayor of Gatlinburg. We’re working with the Chamber of Commerce. The details are still to come because again, communication is limited, but I assure you every penny will go to local relief efforts there.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Smith said, “but you’ve got to get started before you can get finished. You’ve got to do what you can to get folks pointed back in the right direction. Right now we’ve got to feed the people. That’s what we’re going to do.”