By Jesse Wood (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, April / May 2015)
As kids, Jay and Brad Harrill grew up on the Echota community located in and along the ridges between Foscoe and Valle Crucis. They spent many days playing on the big construction equipment and digging in the dirt as children. Now as teenagers, Jay, 19, and Brad, 16, want to be a part of the family enterprise and carry on – when that time comes – the legacy of their father, Mark Harrill, who sketched the layout of the entire development on a piece of paper in a matter of minutes. “That’s every parents dream when you own a business. What’s been very cool is to see their interest level grow as they’ve gotten older. They grew up coming to work with me and didn’t know any other life. They grew up playing on bulldozers and running in the dirt,” their mom, Missy Harrill, said. “They’ve been exposed to it forever. It’s very cool to see them want to become involved.”
Echota developer Mark Harrill has a skill that is unrivaled. “He has an exceptional ability to look at a piece of raw land and literally visualize a finished development,” said Will Sears. “Mark’s vision for Echota was extraordinary.”
And the scale of his vision is just as impressive. Echota consists of condos, townhomes and home sites for hundreds of residents on more than 300 acres that was constructed in three different phases over the past 15 years – the last of which is still being completed. As Missy recalled him sketching out the property, she added, “He knew immediately how he wanted to layout the development. The finished product is very close to what he had in his mind originally.”
Mark says this talent comes from his mother, Lois E. Harrill, who grew up in the hollers of Eastern Kentucky and would walk around her parent’s old farm with grand ideas for the homestead. Mrs. Harrill was the original director of the Project on Aging and her name graces the senior center in Watauga County today.
Mark’s father, Dr. James Harrill, on the other hand, was a psychological counseling professor at Appalachian State University, which might explain his mastery of negotiation and the sales process. The college campus is practically where Mark grew up as a child. Mark was 2 years old when the family moved to Boone in 1961. He was raised on Stadium Drive and spent quite a bit of his youth playing basketball on the hardwood of Broome-Kirk Gym, portions of which he actually installed in his basement when the old gym was demolished in 2005.
After Mark graduated from Watauga High School, he decided to leave the High Country for college. “I needed to get out of town, grow up a little bit,” Mark said. He went to Southern Wesleyan University in South Carolina to play basketball and also High Point University. But when Mark was 20 years old, his mother was killed by a drunk driver. That’s when he moved back home and attended Appalachian State University. One of his buddies he played hoops with was doing quite well as a real estate agent. So after watching his friend’s success and realizing this might be his best opportunity to make a living in the High Country, Mark learned a bit in a now-defunct real estate program at Appalachian State University in the ‘80s.
His “first big break” in the business came about when the courts ruled that Sugar Top Condominiums financing was such that buyers could walk away from their agreements. “Then they had a lot of units come back to the lender and I got a contract to work that out,” Mark said, adding that this is when he started selling condos. Soon, he found an area outside of the 100-foot well radius of Sugar Top and built seven little cottages known as Sugar Cottages.
From there, he made his way from Banner Elk to Foscoe – with a pit stop in between at Seven Devils. Mark established Foscoe Realty and Development in 1987. With an old office where Glen Davis Electric currently operates off of on N.C. 105, Harrill said he had the best of both worlds: a well-located office where he could develop from scratch. Along with the 11 log cabins that make up Hemlock Village in Foscoe, he also worked extensively up the road in Seven Devils, where he built and sold properties consisting of the Lakes Community, Hawk’s Peak Condominiums and The inn at Seven Devils.
DEVELOPING A PEACEFUL HAVEN
During this time, though, Mark had his sights set on what would become the Echota property. Missy said that when the original property – what would become the first phase of Echota – became available, the process moved very quickly. He brokered a deal with Mark Atkins, the owner of the land. Shortly after purchasing the property in 2001, Mark and Missy closed on the largest loan that BB&T had granted west of Winston-Salem in North Carolina.
During that first year, Echota closed on 45 sales and thereafter the sales department gradually worked its way up to roughly 175 closings per year, Harrill once told Western North Carolina edition of Builder/Architect magazine. Metro Magazine reported that Echota was the top-selling community, one with a “magic formula” that sold 450 properties from its founding in 2001 to June 2009, when the publication was printed. That same article noted the success of Echota during the Great Recession when the sales department welcomed 220 families and generated more than $70 million in sales from January 2007 to the summer of 2009.
More recently, there have been 48 sales in all of Echota during the past 12 months with 17 from Echota on the Ridge, 18 from the lower Echota and 13 from Chalakee. Those sales ranged from $157,500 to $770,000 – with an average sales price of $338,000. At this time there are 55 properties on the market that range from $194,900 to $664,900.
All the condominiums, townhomes and custom single-family homes are built in the Adirondack vernacular with heavy timber ascents, open floor plans, vaulted ceilings and spacious balconies that feature stunning views of the High Country, according to marketing pamphlets. New condominiums and townhomes are priced in the $200,000 range. Single-family homes, on the other hand, range from $400,000 to $800,000. Customization of new residences is part of what attracts buyers to Echota.
As High Country Home magazine once wrote, “… Echota has emerged as the High Country’s most sought after community. It’s easy to see why. The secret behind Echota’s success is the extraordinary value and uncompromising quality you’ll find within its gates. It’s the best value in the High Country – a beautifully planned, exquisitely maintained, amenity-packed community with a rich variety of housing options at attractive price points. Not to mention some of the most spectacular views in the Carolina mountains.”
With sweeping views of Grandfather Mountain to the southwest and the Watauga River Valley to the north, Echota is a beautiful tract, or has Mark has said before, “This property is just special.” Echota, which means “peaceful haven” in Cherokee, was developed in three phases – Echota, Echota on the Ridge and Chalakee, the last of which isn’t quite finished. The development also features two clubhouses for community events and celebrations that feature fitness facilities, backyard amenities, an indoor and outdoor poor, a putting green, croquet, bocce ball and more. Across from the street of the main entrance off of N.C. 105 is a 25-acre conservation easement. The Watauga River runs through this piece of property and it features walking trails, picnic shelter and a cleared acre for residents of Echota to enjoy.
In the very beginning, Harrill and Mike Wilson, who worked for Brown Brothers Contracting for many of years and has consulted Harrill throughout his career, “belly crawled” the entire property to dodge all of the meddlesome rhododendron in order to visualize the lay of the land. Wilson also helped visualize the roads. The miles of roads and multiple entrances connecting the various home sites and condominium communities seamlessly flow with the topography and contour of the land. Characteristic for the area, gigantic boulders dot the mountains and roadsides, and not one boulder had to be blasted when the roads were paved. Harrill credits Wilson with the same praise that folks credit Harrill: that ability to see raw land and a finished development all at once. “He makes it work,” Harrill told the High Country Press in 2006.
LIVING THE DREAM
Mark has always been fascinated by the art of negotiation or the art of the sale. Before Mark and his wife, Missy, married in December of 1991 – and even later for their honeymoon and on other vacations before their two children were born – Mark would drive her to a car dealership. The husband-and-wife duo would play opposite roles – one wanted the car while the other acted as if they didn’t. “Mark loved a good sales presentation, and he learned something from other sales people. He would pick up things, pick up ideas or a great line they would use,” Missy said. “He loved to do that.”
As for Mark, he says that he’s selling a “dream” to individuals and families that want to live in the mountains. “You don’t pitch. You listen. You find out what they need, what they want, what excites them and you try to fill those holes and if you can do that, you can be successful.”
This is something that Will Sears, the former Vice President of Development and Director of Sales for Echota, alluded to as well. “You really are helping dreams come true for so many people,” Sears said. When he worked at Echota for nearly seven years, he recalled welcoming potential buyers hoping to escape the rat race and taking them to the top of the mountain where a potential home site or condo was located. “As future owners would visit Echota, you could see their stress level start to drop as they experienced the mountain views. You would notice that their stress meter would go from 100 to about 2,” Sears said. “I think that is what Mark created– a place for families to reconnect and decompress while spending meaningful time with each other. Mark’s Echota creation has changed the lives of over 500 families in a very positive way and will continue to do so for many years into future.”
THE NEXT GENERATION OF HERRILL’S
On April 1 after receiving his realtor’s license, Jay started making phone calls and talking to clients. It must be in his blood because he is off to an awfully good start. From the beginning of April to mid-May, Jay had four sales under contract and a fifth one was on its way to closing. “In today’s market with a first-round starter, that’s incredible,” his dad, Mark, said.
Jay can recall sitting around the dinner table listening to his parents talk about the family business. In third grade, Jay said he had a reading log and one time, his teacher walked up to him and was a little perplexed because this youngster was reading a book about negotiation. In sixth grade, Jay had to sell raffle tickets for a school fundraiser. He sold $6,000 worth of tickets, while the second-place students sold about $200. “I just kind of took it on as a mission and blew everyone else at school out of the water,” Jay said. “My mom and dad have always said I could sell ice to an Eskimo”
Brad, who is 16, is currently a sophomore at Watauga High School, set to graduate a year early after his third year in school. He is believed to be the youngest student ever from Watauga High School to achieve a certification in welding. He loves working with his hands and has an aptitude toward the construction trades. Brad’s skills mesh with the family business especially well because the Harrills have three sets of companies that fall under an umbrella of Foscoe Companies: Foscoe Construction, Foscoe Realty and Foscoe Rentals. The Harrills also own part of Harmony Timberworks, which supplies the timber frames for all of the townhomes, condominiums and custom homes built by Foscoe Construction and sold by Foscoe Realty. “Brad is really good at welding and loves construction,” Jay said. “We’re always joking around. You build ‘em and I’ll sell ‘em.”
To hear his kids talk like this and to see them excel in hopes of taking over the family business one day, Mark tears up. “It makes me cry. I am proud of both my sons.”