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Watauga County’s Economic Successes Highlighted at High Country Economic Kickoff Breakfast

By Nathan Ham

Area business owners and community supporters gathered on Thursday morning at Meadowbrook Inn in Blowing Rock for the fourth annual High Country Economic Kickoff Breakfast that featured the latest economic news for the High Country. 

Dr. Harry Davis, Dean of the North Carolina School of Banking and Finance Professor at Appalachian State University, was the keynote speaker and took a look at the economic success, shortcomings and future for the country, North Carolina and Watauga County. 

Overall, Davis says the national economy is in its 11th year of growth and the sense is that there are no signs of a recession in the near future. At the state and local levels, the economy is also running strong. 

Dr. Harry Davis

“Our new job growth has been phenomenal. We have had six years in a row in North Carolina where we created at least 70,000 new jobs. That is an incredible record for our state,” said Dr. Davis. 

Personal income has grown across the state at a level greater than the national economy. 

Locally, there were some positives and negatives for the economic impact and future impacts. 

“Watauga County’s unemployment rate is 2.7 percent, second only to Buncombe County. Tourism is really growing jobs in this part of the state,” Davis said. 

On the downside, the per capita income for employees here relative to other parts of the state is going down, according to data each year from 2010 to 2018. “Unfortunately, it is because most of our job growth is tourism jobs which tend to be lower-paying than the jobs that are being created in Raleigh and Charlotte,” Davis explained. 

Appalachian Ski Mtn. co-owner Brad Moretz spoke to the crowd of guests on the topic of the evolution of the winter economy, particularly in Blowing Rock. Not only did he highlight the ski industry, but also restaurants, shops and some of the ideas that the area could consider to boost the local economy even more. 

Brad Moretz

“When I look at our interwoven economy, I would say our summer economy is married to our winter economy. Our winter economy provides year-round stability to allow Blowing Rock to have a lot more quality restaurants than it would otherwise. When it comes to restaurants in the Blowing Rock area, we are fighting way out of our population weight class when you consider the number of quality restaurants we have for a town with a population of about 1,300 people,” said Moretz. 

There are 26 restaurants in Blowing Rock, which averages out to roughly one restaurant for every 50 residents in the town, and all but one of those restaurants stays open year-round, something unheard of back in the early days of the village. 

Moretz explained some of the positive impacts that the economy has had for the very ski industry he has been a part of for so long. 

“The skiing experience we can offer today is a world different than in the first quarter-century. We can convert almost six million gallons of water to snow per day and in a little more than a day have a majority of our slopes open,” Moretz said. “Appalachian Ski Mtn. now has two dozen computer check-in kiosks for people to sign in and enter equipment rental information.” 

He added that the ski resort had guests from 46 states, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Columbia and the Dominican Republic over the holiday season. 

Looking at ways to improve the local economy, Moretz suggested improving internet presence and allowing for more short-term rentals in Blowing Rock through online rental outfits such as Airbnb, Vrbo and FlipKey. 

“More than having a winter economy or a summer economy, we now have an internet-based economy. This year, we have seen times where a majority of our skiers and snowboarders have bought their tickets and rental equipment online in advance. If our business community wants to be introspective and, like any progressive business owner, look for new and unrealized opportunities, the internet is low hanging fruit,” Moretz said. 

According to Moretz, there are regulations that stipulate what areas in Blowing Rock can have short-term housing rentals. That is something that he says the town should consider fixing to allow for even more visitors to have choices of where to stay in the area. If not, those are customers that the area could end up losing. 

“If we don’t offer the people that provide our livelihood the lodging opportunities they are looking for, you don’t have to look any farther than a hop and a skip over to Asheville to see who will benefit. Asheville ranks number six in the nation for the most Airbnb listings per capita,” said Moretz. “If our elected leaders turn away the money from these families, these international guests, these prospective shoppers, restaurant patrons and prospective home buyers, Asheville will mean the North Carolina mountains for those Airbnb shoppers rather than Blowing Rock or Boone.”

Other ideas suggested to bring more tourism to the High Country included the addition of a conference center, sporting event marketing, large greenspaces and indoor entertainment options such as an indoor water park or a trampoline park. 

Photos by Leila Jackson