By Paul T. Choate
Oct. 5, 2012. On Thursday evening, Oct. 4, the Town of Blowing Rock held a State of the Town meeting at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum (BRAHM). Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Charles Hardin emceed the event and Mayor J.B. Lawrence and others spoke on several town issues. There was also an unexpected presentation by Police Chief Eric Brown, who was called to the podium following concerns raised by audience members regarding the police department.
Hardin encouraged audience members to take in all that Blowing Rock has to offer, including BRAHM, Mountain Home Music, Ensemble Stage performances and Tweetsie Railroad’s Ghost Train Festival. He then introduced David Harwood, business manager of BRAHM.
“If you haven’t had a chance to look into BRAHM and explore what we have to offer I would strongly advise you to do that. We have a number of things for all age groups and would love for you to come be a part of it,” Harwood said. He also noted that BRAHM had celebrated their one-year anniversary on Oct. 1.
Ivan Dishman, district engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, took the podium to give road construction updates. He first briefly spoke regarding the resurfacing of Main Street in downtown Blowing Rock.
“The contractor has gotten in a little later than we anticipated with that but he is anticipating starting the paving Sunday night and, barring any mechanical issues or weather issues, three or four nights ought to get the paving done there,” Dishman said. He added that after that there would be some final striping and that sort of thing, but that the project should be done fairly soon.
He then spoke on the big project, the widening of U.S. 321 through Blowing Rock. He said that the contractors, Taylor & Murphy Construction Co., have had some “starting pains” with the project and that they were currently slightly behind schedule. Currently the contractors are working on small blasting shots between Broyhill Home Collections and Shoppes on the Parkway. At this point in the project, the widening was supposed to be about 20 percent complete, but Dishman said they are only about 12 or 13 percent of the way complete.
“That will catch up pretty quick when we start building walls and some of the higher dollar figures start coming in,” he said. Though there have been some setbacks, he said the anticipated August 2014 completion estimate is still in place.
Dishman also reassured attendees that the NCDOT is doing everything they can to not use Main Street as a detour and said he believed they would be able to continue to route traffic similar to how they are doing now, by temporarily stopping traffic on U.S. 321.
Upon concern raised by an audience member regarding the retaining walls to be built, Dishman said they are carefully looking into design and color for the walls to make them aesthetically pleasing. He also said some would be below the road and not even visible to motorists, but that some would have to be above the road surface and in places could potentially be as high as 30 feet.
When Mayor Lawrence took the podium, he couldn’t help himself from cracking a few jokes and drawing laughter from nearly all in attendance.
“Well, we’ve got a gravel Main Street,” he said. “We’ve got to go up from there, right?”
He followed that up by referencing his name accidentally being left of the meeting agenda. “I can’t be accused of saying anything out of order because I’m not here,” he joked.
After letting the audience’s chuckles die down, he began flipping through a PowerPoint presentation that touched on several issues. He first touched on the budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year that was adopted on June 12 of this year. He said the budget totaled $6,316,205, and that it came in only $4,655 higher than last year. The tax rate remains at 28 cents per $100 for the seventh straight year and remains the lowest property tax of any town or county in the region. For comparison, Boone’s property tax rate comes in at 37 cents per $100 and Banner Elk comes in at 38 cents per $100.
Lawrence then highlighted several of the projects that have taken place in town over the course of the past year as well as current projects. A brand new picnic shelter was opened at the Robbins Pool and was built by the Watauga High School carpentry class and concrete work was done by Freeman Concrete Concepts.
The downtown streetscape project is currently in phase three and is adding new sidewalks, curb and gutter, paving, utilities and landscaping in front of in front of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Storie Street Grille. Phase four will continue along the east side of Main Street.
New roofs were put on Town Hall and the American Legion building at a cost of $31,185. Improvements were also made at Davant Field, which included adding a concrete slab under the bleachers to keep them from sinking down into the ground, redesigning the flower beds, extension of a retaining wall and drainage improvements.
Lawrence also updated attendees on where the town is on paying for both the BRAHM and American Legion parking areas. The town has two years remaining before the American Legion parking lot is paid off and another 12 years on paying off the BRAHM parking deck.
Another project is the water treatment plant improvements, which are costing the town $565,140 and are expected to be completed by February 2013.
The mayor three several land annexations, including the Blowing Rock Conference Center (58.9 acres), Blue Ridge Vistas (3.03 acres) and also the land for the planned post-acute care facility that will replace the Blowing Rock Hospital (43.393 acres and 24.793 acres in two phases).
Lawrence turned back to his jokes momentarily discussing the town’s plans to improve cell phone coverage in Blowing Rock.
“There are parts of town where a cell phone is a paperweight… It’s useless,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “I think those areas outnumber the areas of town that has good coverage. We are working to correct that without visually destroying our landscaping. … Wherever we put it, it’s got to fit in. We’re not going to put a 200-foot tower in the middle of Memorial Park that’s silver and gold and all those things.”
Lawrence also noted the new police consolidated dispatch. He said so far the town had been very pleased with it and that it would save the town $109,603 over five years and then up to $25,000 per year after.
Though not planning to be one of the presenters, Police Chief Eric Brown was called to the podium after multiple members of the audience raised questions of if the police was too aggressive in their enforcement and if Blowing Rock was a “speed trap.”
Brown took the criticism in stride, saying that any time a complaint comes in to him, he thoroughly looks into it. He added that on the issues he had looked into, he found that his officers had been very courteous.
As to the concern of speed traps, he said, “I did actually look at one speed trap website specifically and Blowing Rock was on there, but so was about 400 other municipalities in the state of North Carolina, including Boone, Lenoir, Hickory [and others].”
He also added that people in Blowing Rock are no more likely to get pulled over now than they were in years prior. He made the point that perhaps due to the downturn of the economy, maybe less tourists were coming each year and it was resulting in more locals being pulled over percentage-wise.
Despite the audience criticism, one gentleman in the audience had a very nice story regarding the Blowing Rock Police Department. He said during a severe snowstorm a few years ago he realized he was out of one of his medications and called the drug store asking if there was any way they could get it to him. He said that ultimately, officers from the Blowing Rock PD went out in the storm, picked up his medication from the drug store and brought it to his home.
“Now show me that in Charlotte,” the man said, as other audience members murmured agreement. “We’ve got a good thing here and I get tired of hearing people complaining.”
Ultimately, every concern or criticism that Chief Brown responded to, he drew widespread applause from the audience.
Speaking to the matter of high police turnover in the town, Kent Tarbutton, TDA board chairman and owner of Chetola Mountain Resort, stood up in the audience and made the case that officers didn’t have to go far down the road to find a higher paying job, referencing the Boone Police Department and the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office as examples of that. He argued that they “cannot afford to live here,” and that it made sense why there is a high turnover rate within the department.
Amanda Lugenbell, assistant director of the Tourism Development Authority, then gave a brief TDA update. She said of BRAHM that more than 15,000 people have visited the museum so far. She also noted that in 2011, Watauga County was ranked 19th in travel impact in the state.
“That means that the county is doing really well and it’s a really good thing to be part of this county,” she said.
To view the State of the Town PowerPoint slides, click here.