By Jesse Wood
The Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce held its annual State of the Town in the American Legion building on Monday evening. Interested citizens received updates on the U.S. 321 widening project, the Middle Fork Greenway project, chamber activities, tourism and other projects in town.
Blowing Rock Chamber Update
Blowing Rock Chamber Chair Jim Pitts gave an overview of the chamber. Along with noting that the organization was recognized as the chamber of the year in the Carolinas in 2016, he said that the chamber finished the year with more than 500 members, a year-over-year increase of more than 10 percent.
Priorities of the chamber include continued improvements along Laurel Lane, video to promote business growth and fill vacant commercial space in the village, and coming up with a strategy to turn the old firehouse into a performing arts facility.
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. It’s a rather small facility and we all have a little bit of a Hayes Center hangover, but the one thing this town is missing is some sort of cultural, music or performing arts center. It doesn’t have to be big,” Pitts said.
He cited the events the chamber puts on such as the Symphony by the Lake, WinterFest and Savor Blowing Rock (formerly known as the Blue Ridge Wine & Food Festival). The chamber changed the latter’s date from April to early May to hopefully increase attendance.
Pitts also gave an overview of the chamber’s Village Foundation, which is a vehicle to raise private funds for projects that enhance the character of the village and spark economic development. This foundation’s work includes Laurel Lane improvements, winter festive lighting and school science and math scholarships.
“There’s no better organization that really nurtures the spirit of this community and nurtures the idea of being really community minded,” Pitts said, adding that the chamber is fortunate to have partners such as the town and TDA and dedicated volunteers.
Update from Town Officials
Mayor J.B. Lawrence and Town Manager Ed Evans gave updates on town activities and developments.
Lawrence highlighted three noteworthy projects. One is the sidewalk project connecting Main Street to Bass Lake. This project is being funded by a $1.2 million federal grant and won’t be completed until likely the end of next summer.
The second project is the gateway project for Sunset Drive. He said he’s hopeful this project will progress further than just the planning stages. The last project is in the design stages and currently being worked on by college students through a Virginia Tech Design Grant. This project seeks to beautify the rear of the American Legion building property and the lake area.
“It’s amazing what the students did and the ideas they gave us when they were here. Those things are just in the works. Tourism continues to be our number one industry, probably number 1, 2 and 3,” Lawrence said.
He added, “We got some issues coming up with the trees in the park. Some of them are kind of sick. It’s just some of the issues we got to deal with, and in the for-what-it’s-worth department, I returned to the banking industry today. I am now the client services executive for Highlands Union Bank.”
Town Manager Ed Evans spoke about power lines, construction activity and more during his presentation. He said that through the end of August, construction activity costs and permitting (commercial and residential) are at record levels and exceed $42 million.
“This is $12 million above the highest level ever,” Evans said.
He noted that Ransom Street has received quite a bit of development. “This street is making some amazing changes,” Evans said, noting that among some of the new projects along this road are a couple condos and new single-family homes.
Evans said that the planning department and McGill Associates, a multi-disciplinary consulting, engineering and landscape architecture firm, is analyzing the town’s roads to see which will be resurfaced in Phase 2 of obligation bond spending pertaining to the transportation category.
Evans said that people have recently asked what happened to the electric power line study. One of the priorities in the town’s 2014 comprehensive plan is removing power lines in downtown Blowing Rock. While acknowledging this is a wonderful idea and would be a great improvement, he noted that this project would cost more than $17 million: $6.5 million on Sunset and $10.75 through Main Street.
Perhaps because of the griping of recent tax increases in Blowing Rock and Watauga County, Evans said he didn’t think taxpayers would want them to increase the tax rate more to pay for burying power lines.
Evans also noted that the NCDOT will present a landscape plan to the Blowing Rock Town Council in October. This project is separate from the U.S. 321 widening project contract. The council will likely sign a memorandum or resolution to begin working on the landscaping along U.S. 321. The presentation will include artist renderings.
Update from Maymead Inc. on U.S. 321 Widening Project.
Kipp Turner of Maymead Inc., the company contracted to complete the U.S. 321 widening project in Blowing Rock presented at the State of the Town event.
Prior to Turner speaking. J.B. Lawrence complimented Turner’s dedication to this project over the past several years and those in attendance gave a nice applause when it was mentioned that final layer of asphalt had been put down along the town section of U.S. 321, which is basically from Tanger Outlets to South 321 Business.
The entire project spans from Possum Hollow Road across from Tanger Outlets to Blackberry Road.
Turner noted that he expects a subcontractor to come out and put down the final markings next week, hopefully. He mentioned that over the summer, the NCDOT decided to add a traffic signal at U.S. 321 and South Main Street. Permanent signage along the town section of the highway should be complete in October.
He noted that the installation of light poles and landscaping is not part of this contract. Foundation for light poles has begun and the goal is to install those light poles this fall.
Turner said that the final layer of asphalt was placed in the parking lot where the old road into downtown Blowing Rock merged off the highway. This area was striped for parking spaces yesterday and the barricade was removed, so folks can now park there and walk along the sidewalk.
As for the non-town section of the project, Turner said a few more rock walls are being built: “We are real close to all of the retaining walls getting finished on the mountain portion.”
“There will still be fencing and guardrails that will follow after off the mountain, but our goal is to really be in a four-lane pattern by the end of the year even down the mountain,” Turner said. “That’s what we are pushing for.”
He cautioned, though, that the final layer of asphalt on the “mountain” section will likely have to wait until next spring because of temperature requirements and seasonal limitations of asphalt.
TDA Director Tracy Brown on Tourism
Tracy Brown, the executive director of Blowing Rock’s Tourism Development Authority, gave a presentation on the state of tourism.
Citing figures from the state, Brown noted that visitors spent $248 million, up 7 percent, in Watauga County in 2016. Tourism-related payroll was $56 million, up 8.2 percent, and 2,800 people are employed because of tourism. State tax receipts were $12.5 million, up nearly 8 percent, and local tax receipts were $9.7 million.
“What that means for us here in this room that own property is that in 2015, each one of us paid $643 dollars less in local taxes because tourists are picking up a lot of that tab,” Brown said, noting that this figure for 2016 isn’t available yet. “We are all benefiting from the tourism dollars that come in here.”
In Blowing Rock, visitors paid nearly $1 million in occupancy tax. Each short-term rental comes with a 6 percent tax that is levied by the Tourism Development Authority to promote the region as a tourist destination and to allocate one-third of those tax proceeds for tourism-related infrastructure, such as the town’s parking decks or digital information kiosks throughout downtown.
He said that leisure-travel tourism had a $50 million impact in Blowing Rock last year.
Brown noted that from January to July (on the calendar year) occupancy tax is down about 12 percent from last year’s January to July in Blowing Rock. He said that part of that was warm weather affecting the ski season and rainy weather in the spring, early summer.
“Thirdly, Chetola went dark. At least about 18 percent of our inventory went dark for about four months. We couldn’t rent them. Those were high dollar units,” Brown said. “We feel like we are going to bounce back with no problems. Let me tell you this, we are fixing to be in the busy season. We are about 2 weeks away from it being wide open.”
Fall leaf color season is arguably the most anticipated season in the High Country and tourists flock to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Grandfather Mountain and the national parks to check out the beautiful autumn colors.
Brown noted that the TDA is continuing to focus on social media and mobile platforms for advertising and promoting content because that’s where the traffic growth is coming from.
Also, the TDA is looking at online booking websites to see if the TDA can recoup or start to collect more occupancy tax revenues that are bypassing the TDA. Apparently, some of these online booking agents are taking their cut off the top – prior to the 6 percent tax being collected.
Middle Fork Greenway Update from Patoprsty
Once complete, the Middle Fork Greenway will be a 6.5-mile multi-use paved trail that connects Boone to Blowing Rock and the Blue Ridge Parkway. So far about one-mile of trail has been built.
In August, the Blue Ridge Conservancy announced that the Town of Blowing Rock was awarded a $2 million federal grant to build a 1.3-mile segment through Section 1 of the Middle Fork Greenway, which is located from Tanger Outlet to the Foley Center at Chestnut Ridge. This section will also feature a pedestrian bridge to access the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Mountains-to-Sea trail funded by a $145,000 grant from the NCDOT.
Blue Ridge Conservancy’s Middle Fork Greenway Project Director Wendy Patoprsty said whenever she is asked when will the entire project be finished, she used to say, “That’s the $12 million question.”
“Today, I can say that’s the $10 million question,” Patoprsty.
Last year, Blue Ridge Conservancy purchased 12 linear acres, representing about a two-third mile of greenway trail, which enables the connection of two existing pocket parks, Sterling Creek Park, across from Mystery Hill and Goldmine Branch Park, which is county land near Niley Cook Road, which is part of Section 4 of the Middle Fork Greenway master plan.
“Right now, we are getting shovel ready in that section. We are getting permits, engineering and all the final designs right now and fundraising the construction of that section as well,” she said.
As for the Boone side, she said the Blue Ridge Conservancy is working with the Town of Boone and Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, which owns Watauga Medical Center and previously gave easements near Foley Center, on the section that would connect the greenway from Niley Cook Road to Fairway Drive, the road that accesses the Boone Golf Course. A $2.5 million grant was recently submitted that would help fund that section.
She also noted that the NCDOT will replace the bridge at Aho Road sometime in the future and that Sen. Deanna Ballard helped the project receive $100,000 in recreation aid money to fund building the bridge wider and taller to accommodate a greenway running underneath.
She said the $1.3 million federal grant requires a 20 percent match. Fundraising efforts are underway, and one idea that they’ve come up with is to ask business in the High Country to encourage customers to round up to the next dollar in July 2018. The goal is to get 200 businesses on board, and so far 56 business have signed up.
“Our goal is to raise the match money for our grant, not only for Blowing Rock section but Section 4. Once we get Section 1 and Tweetsie to Niley Cook towards Boone, we’ll be more than halfway done with the Middle Fork Greenway, which is amazing,” Patoprsty said. “We have lots of money to raise but with the community support and all the grants, I really believe we could do it.”
For more information about the Middle Fork Greenway, click here.
Below are pics of some of the related topics of the State of the Town:
Development along or near Ransom Streeet in Downtown Blowing Rock