By Jesse Wood
July 12, 2012. A recent request from ASU to amend a few words in the Town of Boone’s Unified Development Ordinance’s Table of Permissible Uses to allow administrative offices in a B-3 General Business district – once again – has brought to the forefront an issue that has divided ASU and the town for decades.
On Monday, the Boone Area Planning Commission recommended that the Boone Town Council deny a request to permit administrative offices within any B-3 zone district in town. ASU would like office space for its Human Resource Services at 330 University Hall Drive, which is in the B-3 district and has been vacant for some time. ASU intends to purchase the property when its five-year lease expires.
The sensitivity of the topic of ASU sprawl was apparent when two members of the commission, who deal with the town and/or ASU on a regular basis, declined to speak on record about the recommendation denial.
Although, Planning Chair Buck Spann, who is retired, agreed to talk. He said the modification request was denied partly because the commission sees the B-3 zone as a commercial district that places a “strong emphasis on protecting” those zones for commercial development and for “creating a sustainable tax base” that ensures the “town’s obligations to provide for the safety and welfare of the community.”
Government office buildings are allowable within the ordinance, although not university office buildings. A June 7 document with an ASU letterhead sent to the Planning Department stated, “We believe our use of the building materially conforms to the use allowed in a B-3 zone. If not for the exception of ‘University’ uses in the zone, the current B-3 zone is suitable for use by State agencies.”
If ASU does purchase the property after the five-year lease ends, 330 University Drive will be added to a growing list of town properties bought by ASU over the years – all of which will never be taxed because of ASU’s tax-exempt status.
Relatively recent projects include:
- The former Quality Inn turned dormitory adjacent to BB&T near the intersection of N.C. 105 and U.S. 321
- The former First Presbyterian Church wedged in between Hamby Alley and Howard Street
- The Holmes Convocation Center
- The Turchin Center for the Visual Arts
- The new Reich College of Education building at the corner of Howard and College streets
- The soon-to-be-finished Beasley Broadcasting Complex at the corner of Rivers and Depot streets – among others.
B.K. Dorsey, a devout Republican and former downtown merchant, has lived in Boone for 43 years and was once on the Planning Commission.
“Those of us who have lived here for a long time have watched the university with – pride and trepidation – grow. It’s always been hard for a lot of us to comprehend what direction they’re going,” Dorsey said, adding that the relationship between the two entities was much rockier than it is today.
When he was on the Planning Commission years ago, Dorsey said ASU officials once presented a plan on their expansion that “juxtaposed” what the Town of Boone was putting together in its comprehensive plan.
“They caught us flat-footed. The mayor and all of us went, ‘Where in the world. This is totally out of hand. It doesn’t fit our plan,’” Dorsey said. “They knew where they were going and you better get out of the way.”
He called the university an “800-pound gorilla” with much clout but added that “luckily, he’s been friendly.”
He said some of the “underlying qualms” that people have regarding ASU’s growth is that not only does Boone not have the infrastructure to handle the universities’ continued growth but the town’s tax base is lowered as ASU gobbles surrounding properties.
“That’s with any state institution. Once you take it off the tax rolls, somebody else has to make up the difference – be it merchants, land owners or property owners,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey added, though, that back in the day he and his fellow business owners used to discuss – with glee – the economic impact ASU brought to the area.
31 Percent of All Town Property is Tax Exempt, Valued at $605,300,000
According to a 2012-13 budget workshop packet presented in June to the Boone Town Council, 31 percent of the property in the town, which is valued at $605,300,000, is tax exempt. With the current property tax rate at $0.37 per $100 valuation, this tax-exempt property would bring in more than $2.2 million if taxed.
Of course, all of that property isn’t owned by ASU. It does, though, own a substantial chunk (see map); churches and local governments are among other entities that own the rest of the tax-exempt properties in Boone.
If ASU owned half of the tax-exempt local properties – and from looking at maps that seems a reasonable estimate – ASU more than makes up the difference for its tax-exempt status. (Even if ASU owned all of those properties, it still would, according to the study below.)
In the 2008 study titled “Appalachian State University Economic and Tax Revenue Impacts [in] 2006,” researchers found that ASU contributes significantly to the regional economy. Because the study covers a five-county region – Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Watauga and Wilkes, it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact financial impact to the Town of Boone. But it does provide some perspective.
According to the study, ASU had a $506 million impact on the regional economy and provided an additional $39 million indirectly in business taxes to local governments in 2006. Currently, ASU employs around 5,000 – including 2,800 full-time staff and faculty, according to the university’s Human Resource Services.
“ASU is Boone,” said one merchant standing outside his business in downtown.
The merchant, who preferred anonymity, said that even though tax-exempt properties don’t fill the coffers during collection season, the university more than makes up for that either by employing members of the community or bringing students and their families to the area.
‘Good Relationships Take Time’
Talking to insiders who are familiar with the past and present rapport between ASU and the Town of Boone, the relationship isn’t as rocky as it once was, and this is attributed to both entities having an open dialogue regarding its’ future visions and plans.
“Over the years there have been times where we really didn’t see eye to eye on certain issues,” Mayor Loretta Clawson said. “But we did our 2030 plan and they did a plan at the same time, and it seemed to be on the same page. I think it’s improved over the years.”
Susan McCracken, director of external affairs and community relations, said almost the same thing when asked which factors she would attribute to the improved relation.
“I think when the university was going through its master planning process and the Town of Boone was developing the 2030 plan, we worked together … to try and look at those plans and see that they were compatible, that our goals were similar,” she said.
McCracken added that a “huge goal” was completed last fall when ASU, Blowing Rock and Boone collaborated on the interconnect water system. (ASU does have its own water source that provides water to the main campus.)
McCracken said that Boone, Blowing Rock and Watauga County are a real asset to ASU just as ASU “gives the town and surrounding counties opportunities that would not be possible” otherwise.
“So, I think the benefits are mutual, McCracken said. “The challenges are also there, but good relationships take time and fostering.”
‘It May Get More Difficult’ with ‘Anti-Annexation’ Legislature
ASU had a fall semester enrollment of 17,344 students – some of which are distant education students that don’t impact the High Country. That figure is about 150 more than the population of the Town of Boone, which has 17,186 residents.
McCracken said enrollment will grow 70 to 90 students a year in the future, which is less than in the past. She added that enrollment patterns are designed to meet demand at the state level, and currently those demands are not as “intense as they were maybe 10 or 15 years ago.”
Clawson agrees that the benefits are mutual; that ASU has “made a tremendous difference economically in the whole region; and that a “happy median” is needed for a fruitful partnership.
“The only thing I hope for is that enrollment would level off due to infrastructure and being that the area is small,” Clawson said, adding that recently McCracken invited the Boone Town Council on campus for a tour.
Though with an improved rapport between ASU and the Town of Boone, Clawson warned that the balancing act “may get more difficult” in light of recent “anti-annexation” bills in the General Assembly, referring to two bills – one of which is the dead Senate Bill 949, which would have stripped Boone’s ETJ (extra-territorial jurisdiction) powers.
“If that trend continues, it would be very difficult for us to annex areas into town and grow as far as the amount of land that the town sits on,” Clawson said. “It may get more difficult in the next few years to balance this.”