By Jesse Wood
More than 100 people packed the conference room in the Blowing Rock Art & History Room on Monday evening to hear the annual “State of the Town” update, and in more ways than one, things are looking a little sunnier in Blowing Rock – and not just because Sunny Rock recently opened.
Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Tracy Brown said that the town has seen steady growth in occupancy tax revenue in the last five years. Among the brightest nuggets of info on the evening was that tax revenue is now above pre-recession levels.
“We are tickled to death about that. We expect that trend to continue,” Brown said.
Brown said that the 2014-15 fiscal year saw an increase in revenue by 4.7 percent and that the June month, in particular, was up 12 percent year over year. That last stat, Brown added, was actually “without the Shriners coming to town.”
Town Manager Scott Fogleman talked about how the town continues to implement its comprehensive plan, which features a top ten priorities list, and was adopted last year. Those include burying utilities, which is happening with the U.S. 321 widening project; supporting the Middle Fork Greenway project, which is ongoing; and installing a multi-use path from downtown to Bass Lake, for which a grant application for this $1.2-million project has been submitted.
Fogleman gave a recap on the $13-million investment bonds that Blowing Rock voters approved during the last election to improve the town’s infrastructure. He noted that the first project to be used with these funds – a culvert replacement on Cornish Road – is already underway.
The current year’s budget features $500,000 for road failure repairs, $502,000 for ditch line repairs, $101,000 for culvert replacements, and $839,000 for repaving, Fogleman said.
“The goal is to repave every road in Blowing Rock in the next 10 years,” Fogleman said.
Fogleman also spoke to the gateway project, which is designed to entice folks to not bypass the town for other towns – but to turn off of U.S. 321 on to Sunset Drive or Main Street via the southern or northern entrances. See attached conceptual renderings of these gateway entrances.
Fogleman also gave citizens an update on the fate of the post office in downtown Blowing Rock. He said that the landowner of the post office in downtown Blowing Rock is working with the U.S. Postal Service to ensure that postal services remain downtown.
Charles Hardin, the executive director of the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce, said that the chamber’s five-year plan parallels the town’s newly-adopted comprehensive plan. Some of its goals include keeping downtown properties free of vacancies, supporting the Middle Fork Greenway project, the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System’s Chestnut Ridge post acute care facility off of U.S. 321 and the gateway project – the latter so motorists don’t zoom on by and end up at the “Dan’l Boone Inn,” Hardin said.
But perhaps the main event of the evening was the presentation from Doug Eller, a resident engineer with N.C. Department of Transportation, on the state of the U.S. 321 widening project through town.
This last issue isn’t as sunny as some of the other topics – at least not from many of the residents’ point of view. A business owner or two talked about how the road construction has had negative impacts on business.
Citizens expressed frustration with the project not having a crosswalk light for the future greenway extension on U.S. 321. Since it’s not apart of the project, no utilities for a future light were buried underground during this widening project.
Citizens expressed frustration with height difference between the left side and right side of the road, which are in two separate phases of the project, and the steep hill that motorists must face if they want to get to downtown as the turning lane onto Main Street was moved by 500 feet.
Eller, who answered fielded questions and took notes in response to concerns, said that the more than 3 miles of storm drain system, 3.5 miles of water and sewer lines and 26,000 tons of asphalt have been installed – among other work. Eller mentioned that the most noticeable progress has been the recent traffic shift.
“By doing that it opened up a tremendous amount of work that can now take place on the left side of the road … before winter sets in,” Eller said.
Community members present were quick to ask questions and criticize the project after Eller’s brief update. This frustration, of course, is nothing new.
Originally, the state announced that the entire project had a completion date of October 2015, and the portion of the project through Blowing Rock had a completion date of April 2014.
These were the deadlines before Taylor & Murphy, which was initially awarded the contract in December 2011, ran into “financial difficulties” and its bonding agent assumed control over the project in February of 2013. Once Maymead Inc. was hired to take over as the general contractor, a new completion date was set for April 2015 and June of 2016.
In April, Maymead Inc. requested an extension and was granted until July 7, 2015 to complete the portion through Blowing Rock. In June of this year, NCDOT officials said that another extension is expected for the project, one that will allow for the project to be completed in the summer of 2016 for the portion through Blowing Rock and the summer of 2017 for the entire project.
On Monday evening, one citizen asked, “When do you truly expect to be done?” – which garnered chuckles from the audience and a smile from Eller.
He noted that that NCDOT Chief Engineer Mike Holder said during a community meeting in late June that every effort would be made to finish 95 percent of the project (the final line of asphalt striping and such) that goes through town by next July 4.
After reiterating what Holder said, Eller mentioned that winter will likely hit in 2016 just as crews enter the last step of completing the road.
“We don’t want the contractor trying to pave this road in the winter cause the asphalt is not going to last,” Eller said.
Rob Hudspeth, vice president of system advancement with Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, gave an update on the Chestnut Ridge facility, which is about 55 percent complete.
Hudspeth asked for more support since ARHS’ capital campaign for the facility currently falls about $2.3 million short. So far about $9.2 million of the $11.5 million goal has been met.
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