By Nathan Ham
A comprehensive Sustainable Tourism Management Plan was shared with citizens of Blowing Rock on Wednesday after months of research, data collection and analysis. The plan, put together by Roger Brooks and his staff at Roger Brooks International, offered a detailed look at tourism in Blowing Rock and how to alleviate some of the issues that both residents and visitors have experienced in the town.
“We did comparative research of other cities and towns what they do by season. So we spent months doing research and the main thing that we took into consideration was what citizens of Blowing Rock said. That was our number one priority,” Brooks said Wednesday evening. “We came up with 25 recommendations and they’re not cheap, but I think they’re necessary. And in this, there are five primary components to this whole plan. Number one was dealing with parking and traffic. Number two was the pedestrian experience and safety. Number three was converting day visitors to overnight visitors. Number four is can we bolster the shoulder seasons. Number five is better communication with residents. All of these came from locals and local businesses.”
Brooks has been doing this for 41 years and said he has been to 2,200 different towns and cities to help offer suggestions and plans for tourism management in each respective town.
“It took me about an hour in Blowing Rock to figure out where the problems were. I think you as a community have known about these for years, if not decades, and this is kind of like well, if we haven’t done a whole lot over the last 5, 10, 15, 20 years, here it is, this is time to do it,” Brooks said.
One key fact of information that Brooks pointed out was that Blowing Rock isn’t nearly as crowded as residents think it is. Lodging data showed that the average occupancy in Blowing Rock peaked at 81.07% in July, 80.83% in August and 81.95% in October. No other month had more than 68% of lodging locations booked up. A large influx of traffic comes from people making day trips to Blowing Rock. There are over seven million people that live within a 100-mile drive to Blowing Rock.
Brooks said that Blowing Rock’s top priority should be to hire a Public Information Officer to be the spokesperson for the town and the departments within town government.
“I was pretty shocked that the Town of Blowing Rock did not have one considering how popular of a destination you are,” he said.
The largest infrastructure issue that is impacting Blowing Rock is the lack of parking available. According to data compiled by Brooks and his team, the town has 430 parking spots available for employees and visitors in the Main Street area. The goal for a town the size of Blowing Rock would be a minimum of 1,500 parking spots.
The plan proposes a 600-spot parking deck to be built on anywhere between two to five acres of land while also implementing a trolley service for people to be able to park and then ride the trolley to a central location on Main Street. The trolley service would run every 15 minutes so people would not have to wait long to go from their vehicles to the shops and restaurants.
The estimated cost of such a structure would be roughly $11 million. With the recent infrastructure bill passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden, money could be available for projects just like this.
“The federal government just released $1.2 trillion in infrastructure and billions of dollars to every state. If I was in Blowing Rock, I’d be right on the top of that list. you could pay for all of this with one small portion of what the states can get from this $1.2 trillion,” Brooks said.
Paid parking in the town is another issue that has been brought up in years past by town residents. For street lots and for a future parking deck, parking revenue can be raised for the town and even for locations such as churches that would be willing to let visitors park in their lots for a small charge.
“The days of having meters with dimes and quarters and nickels is over. So nowadays we have parking management systems that are basically online. However, if somebody is not online and they don’t have a smartphone, every block has a little kiosk,” said Brooks. “I believe that the churches and other places in town could actually earn money by renting out their parking spaces, except when they need them for their congregation for the Sunday gatherings. it’s actually a good fundraiser for the church by allowing people to use the parking except when they need it. I believe you can pick up probably 300 spaces just doing private partner parking.”
Estimates showed that at $2 an hour with a four-hour maximum, parking revenue in downtown Blowing Rock would be just over $1.375 million each year. At $1 an hour with a six-hour maximum in a 600-space parking structure, that would bring in roughly $122,000 each year after the cost of operating a parking shuttle each day. That would total almost $1.5 million in parking revenue for the town each year.
“You could probably start this beginning of 2023. Maybe in March or April is when you would start doing paid parking,” Brooks said.
Once a parking structure is completed, other suggestions in the plan include removing parking on Main Street and using that space to widen the sidewalks and add decorative crosswalks and trees along the sidewalks.
Other smaller enhancements for Blowing Rock that were suggested in the plan include setting up a Destination Team that includes all stakeholders to provide input to the Town Council, preparing a Downtown Development Plan, the addition of Wayfinding signage to help visitors locate where shops, restaurants and other attractions are, building an amphitheater in Memorial Park, adding seating areas around the park and continuing to offer outdoor dining opportunities.