Editor’s Note: High Country Press spoke to a number of businesses from Beech Mountain, Banner Elk, Boone and Blowing Rock about business during the recent holidays and perceptions on where the economy is heading
By Jesse Wood
Jan. 6, 2015. Despite rain and unseasonably warm temperatures throughout parts of the past month, local businesses are reporting a solid December and holiday season, and a number of business owners, comparing this season to previous years, said they felt like the economy is finally “turning the corner.”
“I really think this is the best one since 2007,” Fred Pohl of Fred’s General Mercantile said. “As far as the number of days people were here – started on Friday before Christmas and quite frankly went through Saturday and even yesterday – it wasn’t bad. We’ve had a nice long drawn out period that kind of gave us all a little rebound.”
While more than 20 inches of snow fell in November, Beech Mountain only saw about two inches of snow in December. Pohl praised Beech Mountain Resort for all of the investments it made over the past year and the improvements to snowmaking that create opportunities to have some winter fun when Mother Nature isn’t cooperating.
“Despite the weather and everything else, folks seem to be having a good time and people are feeling better about things and willing to turn loose. The rental units all did well. The ski folks did well and the restaurants did well,” Pohl said. “We’ve been able to maintain and everybody feels good about things. I keep looking out my front door waiting for the economy to do better, and I really think we’ve kind of turned the corner.”
Beech Mountain Resort spokeswoman Talia Freeman added in an email, “Our numbers were up considerably from the last several seasons. Our customers seemed happy with the improvements and conditions! We had a great week! We are busy today [Monday] as well!”
Sugar Mountain Resort spokeswoman Kim Jochl had similar sentiments as far as an increase in business during this holiday season over last year. She mentioned “business was good when weather was pleasant and/or wintery but slowed down when rainy, unfriendly weather set in.”
“The interest was certainly there,” Jochl said. “Overall a solid holiday season [that was] up from last year, which was also favorable.”
In Banner Elk, Ski Country Sports owner Bill Leonard said that everyone was spoiled last year when it was cold and snowy the entire holidays of Christmas, New Year’s and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which are three of the four major holidays for the ski industry along with Thanksgiving.
Leonard noted that even though the High Country hasn’t “looked like a winter wonderland,” the parking lots were full and people were having a good time on the slopes, which he said were also crowded.
“December was real good. Remember, November started out really strong … It fell off a little bit in early December but overall it was pretty good,” Leonard said, adding that conditions have been good and will improve even more leading up to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday because of the chilly temps in the short-term forecast.
“My feeling is we’ll have a good weekend,” Leonard said.
For Wayne Underwood, owner of Mystery Hill, a mostly indoor attraction in between Boone and Blowing Rock, when the weather isn’t great for skiing, he sees his business increase, something he noticed during the past two weeks. In fact, Underwood said the past Monday was the biggest business day ever for a day in December.
“They went great. The weather cooperated for our business,” Underwood said. “This is probably one of the warmest Christmas and New Year’s we’ve ever had.”
Underwood said that more than 100 people had called in the past three weeks trying to secure a rental for one of Mystery Hill’s nine cabins. Underwood said that folks from Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia and the rest of the state all came out to enjoy the puzzling attraction. He also noted that most of the visitors stayed in town for a full week. But even though he sees an increase in business on rainy days, he understands the importance of a winter season that looks and feels like winter on the local economy.
“It would be good to get some cold weather now and get the ski slopes re-coated, and it’ll bring people on up who will continue to eat, sleep and have fun,” Underwood said.
Just up U.S. 321 in Blowing, David Barker, owner of the Blowing Rock Market, a gas station and convenience store on Main Street, had mixed thoughts on the recent activity, although he also expressed optimism that the overall economy has “turned the corner” – just as Fred on Beech Mountain mentioned.
Barker noted that the overall month of December was essentially flat from last year. He said he noticed an unspectacular uptick during the holiday season over the past 10 days. He attributed lower amounts of gas sold to a new Walmart gas station in Lenoir that he said sells for below cost.
He said, of course, that the business and tourism is weather dependent. Barker noted that during bad weather, he has seen a “mild” increase, but with nice weather, things are “really up.”
“The restaurants I talked to were slammed and then the hotels seemed to be doing good, too. Overall, it’s been a good Christmas season for us,” Barker said. “We’ve been on a trend now for a couple years in a row. Year over year, it’s doing a little better than last year.”
Looking ahead, he said that the week of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (Jan. 19) and Winterfest in Blowing Rock (Jan. 22-25) will essentially make or break January.
“My feeling is we’ll have a good weekend,” Barker said.
In Boone, a couple businesses, Shoppes at Farmers and Watsonatta Western World, both on King Street, reported a positive holiday.
“Christmas and New Year holidays were really good,” Brandon Langdon, owner of the Shoppes at Farmers, said, adding, like Underwood at Mystery Hill, that rainy weather helped as folks took to shopping as an alternative to exploring outdoor activities.
“Overall, the season has been good, strong. Probably better than last year,” Langdon said.
He noted that he felt the economy has “definitely” turned the corner, something he said was probably encouraged by the lower gas prices, which have fallon below $2.40 per gallon at some stations in the High Country.
Darrel Watson at Watsonatta said business was “good” during the holidays, but he didn’t notice an increase in business, which is said is about 75 percent local and the remainder being tourists visiting the mountains.
“We’ve always been good to customers and business has always been pretty good. It’s how you treat the customer more than anything else to keep them coming back,” Watson said.