By Jesse Wood
Nov. 5, 2012. Imagine spending two days skiing, snowboarding or tubing in the chilled winter air at four of our fine winter resorts in the High Country and then settling into a heated water park that features five slides, a wave pool, a Jacuzzi and a “lazy river” that floats through a cave to a nearby a tiki bar.
Although the project hasn’t yet been approved by the Watauga County Planning and Inspections Department, a 42-acre “destination resort” called Middle Fork Falls Resort plans to break ground in the spring of 2013, according to developer Steve Moberg.
To be wedged in between Tweetsie Railroad and Mystery Hill off U.S. 321 in between Boone and Blowing Rock, the ambitious $40-million project will feature:
· 50,000-square-foot year-round indoor water park;
· Hotel with 120 to 150 rooms with a conference center
· 35,000 square feet of commercial retail space
· Combination gas station with convenience store and a fast food restaurant
· 10,000-square-foot full-service restaurant
· Approximately 50 “rustic” resort rental log cabins
· Distillery and micro-brewery with music hall
· Nature trails that connect to the Middle Fork Trail
· 1,600 parking spaces
Moberg said he began pondering this project after visiting an indoor water park in Gatlinburg that felt like a tropical paradise when the temperatures were 20 degrees outside and thought, “Why not have one of these in Boone or Blowing Rock?”
When Moberg, who is the owner of Crestwood Resort and Spa and has been a building contractor for the past 30 years, came back to the High Country after his recent vacation, Tweetsie President and CEO Chris Robbins told him the 42-acre tract was on the market.
Starting in February, Moberg and Robbins spent six months in negotiations and the property finally went under contract in July.
The property currently owned by Middle Fork LLC worked with Moberg to relieve some restrictions placed on the acreage to make the current proposed project possible. They have also agreed to a cross-easement parking since most of the parking used by Tweetsie will now be on the proposed Middle Fork Falls Resort
“It’s going to be a great little draw and what it will do financially for the county will be huge for everybody,” Moberg said, mentioning the employment through the water park, hotel, stores and shops.
Moberg’s plan is to open everything at once in the spring/summer of 2014.
“What we are [aiming for] is a destination resort. I don’t want to say a little Gatlinburg or a little whatever, but truly come up here and spend a couple days and enjoy what you want to do,” Moberg said, adding that, more than anything, it will help combine Mystery Hill, Middle Fork Falls and Tweetsie into a single destination.
For the water park, Moberg is working with SplashTacular, a water park design firm based out of Canada and Kansas.
The two-story indoor water park, which would feature a retractable roof to control the climate, will be in an enclosed glass sidewall and ceiling structure that is 100 feet wide by 500 feet long. The five enclosed slides – two of which are raft slides, two are body slides and one is a vortex slide – will take off on the second floor and jut out of the structure into the elements, twisting and turning, and will land on the first floor back inside of the building. The whole time, though, the bodies sliding through the tubes will stay warm.
Preliminary plans for the first floor show a splash area, a basketball pool and a wave pool, which will feature a platform stage for performing acts to play in front of the wave pool. The western portion of the water park will feature an adult area that has a “lazy river” that floats into the tunnel of a mountain with a waterfall and grotto, and a Jacuzzi sits next to a tiki bar.
Preliminary plans for the second floor show an outdoor deck and an inside mini-golf course, concessions and a balcony to view what’s happening on the bottom level.
The eastern portion of the water park is adjacent to the Mystery Hill property and western portion of the water park borders the proposed hotel with a conference center. Next to the hotel is the 35,000-square-foot retail commercial center. Behind the hotel sits an eight-acre wooded area that is shaped like a bowl and will feature the 40-plus “rustic” log cabins to be built by local contractors, a spa and amenities center.
Moberg envisions two entrances into Middle Fork Falls Resort, one of which is the current Tweetsie entrance, where cars will immediately take a left and drive down Middle Fork Falls Parkway. The other entrance is about 100 yards away from the Tweetsie entrance towards Blowing Rock on U.S. 321.
Upon turning into the proposed second entrance, drivers will immediately encounter the proposed fast food restaurant, gas station and convenience center on 600 feet of highway frontage property that leads to a covered bridge that leads to the parking lot of the resort.
Across from the 1,600-space parking lot and closer towards Tweetsie is the 10,000-square-foot full-service restaurant in the vein of a Red Lobster, Outback and Olive Garden.
The 42-acre resort that will feature three to four outparcels for the convenience store/gas station, fast food restaurant, hotel and possibly the commercial shopping center. Moberg said he doesn’t want to be in the business of managing restaurants, hotels, gas stations and stores.
Moberg said one store in the shopping center that would be a great addition to the area would be a flyfishing shop because of the massive trout that swim in the Middle Fork River, which runs through the property. For another example, he said an ice cream and fudge shop like Kilwin’s of Blowing Rock would be a perfect fit as well.
Recently, Moberg has been in discussions with a group out of Asheville to start a micro-brewery and distillery inside a music hall on the Middle Fork Falls property.
He added that he plans to advertise in Charlotte, Asheville, Greensboro and into Virginia and said that he hopes to attract people of all kinds of varying demographics – from families and single adults to small kids to college students to this the year-round resort.
“We’ll be the only water park in that region,” Moberg said. “The theory is to have it right here. Truly in the dead of winter, in times of the year when folks are hoping for golf season, you can have a tropical setting in here.”
Before Moberg finally got the property under contract, he began preliminary discussions with Watauga County Commissioners, N.C. Department of Transportation, the Watauga County Fire Marshall Steve Sudderth, the “swamp guy” for environmental issues and other necessary officials to be involved in the project.
“I met with everybody to get due diligence out of the way, normally you do that before you [enter] into a contract, but I wasn’t going to stop,” Moberg said, adding that a site plan is complete, and he is waiting to tie a couple loose ends with the investment group before presenting the project to the county.
“Once that happens, this project is going to fly,” Moberg said.
When asked if he had heard of the project, Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque said, “Yes.” But then, he added “Is he serious?”
After stating that, “We wish him the best,” Geouque directed comments to Watauga County Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman.
On Monday, Furman said he had heard of the project but seemed skeptical. He added that he hasn’t seen the site plan, which would be the first requirement to break ground.
Furman also mentioned that a few ordinances would need to be approved, such as the water shed ordinance, high-impact land ordinance, subdivision regulations and erosion control and flood plain.
Furman said it was hard to comment on this development without seeing it on paper. However, Furman, who is also the director of the Economic Development Commission, added that there is enough property for what Moberg wants to do and if the project is successful, he said the resort could be a boon to the High Country.
“The water park is intended to be an attraction, so if it’s successful, it would have a positive economic impact,” Furman said. “One thing I’ve heard said is in the summer when it’s raining, it’s hard to find stuff to do especially for kids, and in the winter, if the skiing is not good, the same.”
Furman added, however, “If [Moberg] wants to break ground in the spring, I need to see it on paper pretty soon.”