By Nathan Ham
Despite some tough times for towns during this COVID-19 pandemic, the Town of Blowing Rock found plenty of positive project updates and town news to share.
Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Charles Hardin shared data that showed people are still interested in Blowing Rock and wanting to see what all is going on in the High Country. In 2019, there were approximately 47,000 visitors came to the numerous events the town has to offer. There were also 47 new members that joined the Blowing Rock Chamber, bringing the total to 543. There were 461,000 unique visitors to blowingrock.com and a total of 15,111 followers on social media.
In addition to the data, Hardin pointed out some of the things that the chamber has played a role in developing over the last year. Continued advocacy for the Blue Ridge Parkway and its importance to the community finally paid off with Congress passing the Great American Outdoors Act that will provide $500 million for the Blue Ridge Parkway to address deferred maintenance issues. The town added a new Welcome to Blowing Rock sign on Highway 221 and refurbished two existing signs on Highway 321 that include solar-powered LED lighting.
Arguably the most important thing the chamber had a hand in this year was establishing the Rock United Relief Fund. The grand fund was established to “provide much-needed funds to local businesses to assist with expenses during the COVID-19 shutdown,” according to Hardin.
“This was probably the biggest thing we have done in the past six months,” he added.
Each grant was for a maximum of $5,000. There were 44 applicants and 32 grants dispersed for a grand total of $115,000.
“It has been very uncertain times in our community during COVID. I think our town has really stepped up to the plate,” said Mayor Charlie Sellers. “I would like to thank the town council, all of our department heads, all of our town employees and our citizens for making Blowing Rock a fabulous place to live and work. I want to thank everybody for what they have done during COVID and be sure to follow the three W’s. We will get through this and we will all be stronger moving forward.”
Looking ahead, Blowing Rock Town Manager Shane Fox highlighted some of the new projects that will be beginning soon in the town. The Bass Lake Sidewalk is a $1.2 million project that received the notice to proceed on August 11. The Middle Fork Greenway Phase 1, which is approximately 1.2 miles, is a $2.4 million project that will begin with construction bids in December of 2020 and construction beginning in the spring of 2021. This project has been paid for from a $1.9 million grant and money raised by the Blue Ridge Conservancy.
Three new private projects for lodging were approved over the previous year. The Blowing Rock 4 Forty Four project at the former New River Inn will have up to 16 residential units for short-term rentals. The Blowing Rock Cottages at the site of the former Blue Ridge Motel will have 12 rooms with and The Embers will be a 40-room hotel on Highway 221 behind the Speckled Trout restaurant. These projects will include sidewalk installation.
Tracy Brown, the Executive Director of the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority, briefly shared some information on the state of tourism in Blowing Rock and the numerous contributions made by the TDA. A total of $999,809 was collected in occupancy taxes from $16.66 million spent in lodging sales in the town. Visitors spent $49.99 million in town in the 2019-20 fiscal year. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the occupancy tax collections had been on a steady rise for 10 years.