Mark Oldham faced a dream disguised as a dilemma.
He had sold his business and traveled the world for six months with his wife, Sharon. Now, he was hunting for a fresh career venture.
“When we sold the business in Nashville, we could have retired,” Oldham said. “We felt too young to retire, but we were too old to launch a startup.”
To solve the quandary, the Oldhams took stock of their passions, one of which was Blount County’s mountain oasis. Many times throughout their marriage they had visited Townsend, where the Smoky Mountains briefly part to reveal a tranquil morsel of Americana. Their love of the Peaceful Side of the Smokies stemmed from excursions they had taken there during their college days.
“We loved the mountains and wanted to be in hospitality, but we had no idea that anything would be available in Townsend of all places, a town we loved as students,” Oldham said.
But in 2014, during their career crossroads, Mark and Sharon got a chance to resurrect their Townsend memories – and help one of the town’s beloved getaway spots rise from the ashes – when tragedy gave way to opportunity.
In November 2013, a fire had destroyed Townsend’s Dancing Bear Lodge and Restaurant.
While no one was seriously injured, the four-story building was a total loss, leaving a set of rental cabins to sustain the business. By the time Oldham was looking for a foothold in the hospitality industry, Dancing Bear’s owners were looking for a buyer. The love affair was immediate.
“This ad popped in for 37 acres with cabins,” said Oldham. “We fell in love with it as soon as we saw it and put a contract on it the next week.”
The Oldhams’ infatuation may have been instant, but they knew the road to recovery would be gradual.
“There was a big hole in the ground where the fire was, you could see the singed trees where the fire had occurred,” Oldham said. “I didn’t have any history with the property, and even I felt the emotion of the fire. It was in this grey state of flux.”
After taking ownership of the resort, Oldham’s team added to the existing cabins – which, according to Oldham, were still in “fine shape” – and expanded the resort’s offerings by building a restaurant and an event space.
“We were able to build an event lawn, get in the wedding business and bring back finer cuisine to this area,” Oldham said. “As soon as we sent out the first e-mail blast, we introduced ourselves and said we were going to bring Dancing Bear back.”
One thing they decided not to bring back: the burned-down lodge itself.
“We knew that people were going to miss the lodge,” Oldham said. “It was this huge, beautiful structure with an atrium lobby. We didn’t want to try to recreate it. This is our take on Dancing Bear Lodge.”
Their version of Dancing Bear features 21 luxury cabins designed to welcome couples, families and corporate retreats. The property is built around the event space, which hosts weddings and private events. There are also two miles of walking trails.
“It’s not like you’re coming into what you normally think about in a cabin,” said Oldham. “Each one has high-speed internet, HDTV, premium bedding and linen, and 16 of them have fireplaces and hot tubs. We operate it like a hotel with daily housekeeping service.”
But Oldham’s pride and joy is the restaurant, the Appalachian Bistro, which opened in August 2015 and offers elevated farm-to-table cuisine.
“To me, it’s the crown jewel of dining in the Smokies,” Oldham said. “Shelley Cooper, our executive chef, is inspired by the Appalachian Trail, from the mountains of Georgia to the mountains of Maine. We have our staples, but whatever she can get from the local produce vendor she weaves into the menu. We’re really happy about how the restaurant turned out.”
Dancing Bear thrills travelers looking for a getaway, but it has also tapped into a new market: corporate retreats. The dynamic event space and diverse array of cabins appeal to businesses interested in holding strategic planning sessions in the serenity of the Smokies.
“You see the stress come out of people when they get settled and start their meeting,” said Oldham. “It’s not a closed conference room with fluorescent lighting. We have big windows and incandescent lighting. We have our famous fire pit where we have S’mores nightly, and we’re the only place in the area that has full bar service. What people say is, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel like I’m a world away, but I’m just minutes from Knoxville and the interstates.'”
Oldham feels the same way. The town that began as a getaway for him and his wife has become the place where he gets to live out his personal and professional dreams.
“I’m energized. I’m having four times as much fun,” Oldham said. “I get up and I’m able able to look into the Smoky Mountains, and I don’t have to pass any traffic lights or fast food joints on my commute. We have some challenges, but when it’s all said and done, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
“This is living the dream.”
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