Nearly three months after wildfires tore through Sevier County, the largest employer in Gatlinburg is breaking ground on its $150 million project to rebuild.
Westgate Resorts was one of the most devastated communities in the wake of the fires. The flames destroyed 70 of its cabins and mid-rises – which accounts for about two-third of its buildings -- in addition to the resort’s check-in facility, restaurant and laundry facility.
"It was difficult to comprehend that within hours, all of these structures were gone," said General Manager Chris Lacey.
Looking out at the resort now, Lacey finds peace.
"I feel really blessed when I come up here, especially this morning when I came up and saw this building had been framed overnight," he said on Wednesday, gesturing to a structure at the top of the resort.
Contractors have now cleaned out debris for more than 40 of the 72 cabins and mid-rises that burned.
The resort launched an aggressive plan to rebuild after the fires. The project aims to restore the resort -- which originally took 17 years to construct -- within 18-24 months.
"This phoenix is rising from the ashes just like we said it would," said Lacey.
Project manager Luke Laney, co-owner of the C. Laney & Sons Construction company, said keeping up with post-wildfire demand is no easy task.
"We've had to bulk up. We've hired approximately 20 new people for our company alone," he said.
The project’s timeline involves picking up eight buildings per month until completion and adding more workers to the site as time progresses. In November alone, the resort will use up to 700 construction workers.
While crews break ground, business is picking up.
"This past weekend we were practically full, we only had a few rooms left,” said Lacey. “Of the 250 that we have available, they were full."
Lacey said many of the resort’s core amenities are still intact, including its food and beverage facilities and the water park. He added the spa was preparing to reopen as well.
“Seeing how much we’ve done in terms of pouring the new foundations, and actually seeing vertical construction now, is exciting for all of us," he said.