By Jesse Wood
Aug. 4, 2014. During the July public hearing regarding the proposed Mountainleaf development, the Blowing Rock Town Council heard talk of the “Tale of Two Blowing Rocks” – if the project, which consists of a 112-room hotel and 20 condos with up to 26,000-square-feet of retail space, were to be approved.
Mountainleaf, a Charlotte-based Catellus Group development, would be located on a seven-acre property that borders the Chetola Resort entrance and is two blocks from the heart of Main Street. Councilman Al Yount noted that this theory that Mountainleaf would divide Blowing Rock stuck out in his mind following the public hearing.
Keith Tester, a former council member in Blowing Rock from 2002 to 2010, was among those that spoke out against the development at that public hearing. While Tester was concerned – in light of existing vacant storefronts in downtown and his wife’s retail business – about the additional retail space that he said would essentially double what downtown Blowing Rock already offers, Tester told High Country Press recently that this development would change the unique character of the “small mountain village” that is so attractive to visitors and residents.
“Unlike most mountain towns, [Blowing Rock] is a small village – not a town,” Tester said. “I think that is what worries me most, but maybe it’s inevitable with time that we are going to grow up from historically being a small, three-block village to a small mountain town. When you combine that with the widening of the road, we are not as remote as we once were. My fear is that instead of being a very special small mountain village, that we become a mountain tourist town on U.S. 321.”
Tester noted that while many share his opinion, the feeling around town is mixed. Some are concerned about the expedited transition that Mountainleaf would cause in the community and others see this project as an economic stimulator to Blowing Rock – one that wouldn’t divide the community but would extend it along Main Street, right up to Chetola Resort and beyond to the Tanger Outlets on Shoppes on the Parkway Road.
“I think if I stand back and look at the big picture, that piece of property would tie in the entire town with Main Street and with Shoppes on the Parkway,” Mayor J.B. Lawrence said in an interview.
“That’s what I envision.” Lawrence added that this “Tale of Two Blowing Rocks” was hashed over years ago when Tanger Properties opened around 1986.
“It was the same feeling [then] that this was going to kill downtown and it did just the opposite,” Lawrence said.
Blowing Rock Chamber Executive Director concurred with the mayor about that perceived fear before Tanger outlets arrived. But Hardin said Tanger, with its national, corporate advertising, brought new folks to the area who then ventured downtown for a different and more unique shopping, dining and lodging experience.
He mentioned while it may take three years for the mom-and-pop hotels in Blowing Rock to absorb the competition of the 112-room hotel, people who want will have the option of choosing a more-corporate hotel instead of driving away from town to stay at the Courtyard by Marriott in Boone, and those that want to stay at the family-owned inns will still do so.
“I don’t think that will ever change,” Hardin said, adding that the same is for the upper-end, corporate retail companies that will likely open inside the retail shops of the proposed development. Folks will still come downtown to see offerings of the local, unique boutiques.
Catellus Group President and General Counsel Ben Cassarino, who has visited the area for about 10 years, also dismissed talk about this development causing a division.
“I think it will enhance the experience of Blowing Rock and create more opportunities for infill between Mountainleaf and the town’s center,” Cassarino said. “So I think it will enhance Blowing Rock. I don’t think it will create a divide, and we have incorporated several design features that will integrate this project with the town’s center.”
Asked for specifics on what would tie this project into the heart of downtown, Cassarino said Catellus Group representatives would delve into these procedures at the second public hearing that the Blowing Rock Town Council has scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 12, at 5: 30 p.m.
Another concern – aside from Catellus Group naming one of the roads entering and exiting the project Main Street – that was questioned at the public hearing was the uncertainty surrounding the construction phasing of this project. Will the hotel be built first and then the condominiums featuring retail space on the lower level? Or vice versa.
Some have expressed concern that the building of the hotel might be contingent upon selling the condominiums. What would happen if those condominiums didn’t sell as anticipated? For instance, Councilman Al Yount, who was also concerned about the “scale” of the project, said he had other concerns with the predominance of one-bedroom condos. Yount said if someone wanted to sell their home to buy a condo, they would likely prefer to have at least two bedrooms.
In addition, Hardin said the main concern he had was the timeframe of construction that the developer talked about at the public hearing in July.
“They were saying five years [to complete]. That is unacceptable to the town and the chamber. It needs to be two years or less [to receive support for the project],” Hardin said. “We want it to be built within the character and appearance standards already set. Of course, we don’t a project where someone gets halfway into it and can’t finish.”
Tammy Bentley, an administrative assistant with Blowing Rock Planning and Inspections, said the Catellus Group hasn’t voiced its commitment to which, whether residential and retail structures or the 112-room hotel with spa and conference center would be built first.
“They didn’t indicate. They thought the hotel would be first but they didn’t confirm. They didn’t commit to either,” Bentley said. “It’s too early to know.”
Again, Ben Cassarino from the Catellus Group didn’t divulge any specifics. “We will also discuss that on the 12th [of August at the public hearing],” Cassarino said. “We are formulating those plans right now.”