Blowing Rock ONE on ONE With…Tommy Sofield, running for County Commissioner

Blowing Rock ONE on ONE With…Tommy Sofield, running for County Commissioner
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By David Rogers. May 3, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — With the 2018 primary elections only a few days away, Blowing Rock News sat down with High Country businessman Tommy Sofield, who has thrown his hat into the ring as a Republican candidate for Watauga County Commissioner from District 5, running against fellow Republican Allen Trivette. Whichever candidate wins will face Democrat Charlie Wallin, who is running unopposed on his side of the aisle, in the November election. Incumbent Jimmy Hodges is not running for re-election.

Although many were surprised when Sofield’s name surfaced as a candidate for County Commissioner, those who have known the highly successful entrepreneur for any length of time have told Blowing Rock News that it is a natural reflection of his passion for Watauga County and the High Country.  In speaking with the one-time football player-turned-manager and owner of a small business empire, not only does that passion become obvious, but we discover a guy who is a bit “old school”, having married his high school sweetheart and now with a burgeoning family that includes seven grandchildren.  And yet, Sofield understands that the world is rapidly changing, with new opportunities for our children and grandchildren to prosper and succeed in the High Country if only we leave it ready for them to take advantage.

tommy sofield and us. buildingsCentral themes that emerge from this interview are [1] a need for operating government efficiently; [2] new initiatives should, to the extent possible, be self-sustaining in order to avoid raising taxes; [3] prioritizing an investment in our schools; and [4] nurturing development in a way that diversifies our economic base while protecting the natural environment that we all love and growing the number of good-paying job opportunities far beyond the minimum wage, seasonal jobs that are typical of the tourism-related industries.

We start this interview with getting to know the man and his background, then take a deep dive into specific issues.

Blowing Rock News (BRN): Tell me a little bit about your growing up, where you are from and your ambitions when you were still in school. 

Tommy Sofield (TS): I grew up in Virginia Beach.  I was a lifeguard growing up on the beach, really 8th through my 12th grade year. I also played football in high school and was fortunate enough to have Appalachian look at me. They offered me a scholarship my senior year. So I came up to Appalachian in 1971 and played football up here from ’71 to ’75. 

During the time I was here we had just gone from the Carolinas Conference to the Southern Conference. It was Coach Brakefield’s first year here, the same year I came. Five years later, the last year I played, we beat South Carolina, East Carolina and Wake Forest. That was just four years after coming from the Carolina Conference.  So that was a great run there. 

County government is basically a business. You have revenue and expenses, but you are running this business with other people’s money. And it is coerced money.

BRN: Now I recall from a previous conversation that you had aspirations with a buddy in high school to open a sandwich shop on the beach, and not go to college. 

TS: Yes, a friend of mine who was also a lifeguard actually did that. He went into a building down along the beach and he opened up a sandwich shop. 

I remember coming home for Christmas, I think it was my sophomore year, and that sandwich shop was as busy as can be. So that got me to thinking about Boone being dry so no real restaurants or bars open late at night. And all the kids wanting to eat later, so my sophomore year I was fortunate enough to keep aggravating one of the bankers here in town and he lent me some money. So at the end of that academic year I opened up a sub shop called Yogi’s.  Our main business was delivering to the campus. 

BRN: What were some of your challenges in starting that up, other than the money to get going? 

TS: Since we started at the end of the academic year, suddenly all of the students were gone. So I struggled through the summer to keep my head above water, but when they returned in the fall, our main business was delivering to the campus.  It was a good start.  The next year, my junior year, I opened up a Yogi’s in Raleigh to serve NC State, then my senior year I opened one at Mars Hill College. 

That gave me the opportunity to stay in the area after I graduated, running the Yogi’s business. 

BRN: How difficult was it to manage Yogi’s? You are a couple of hours away from Mars Hill and at least three hours back then to Raleigh…. 

TS: It was a good learning experience.  I would get done playing football on Saturday, then get in my car and go down to Raleigh and collect my money for the previous week, then go over to Mars Hill and collect it, then make my deposit of revenue on Monday morning. The biggest thing was learning to hire good people.  I learned early on that I needed to hire good people and give them the opportunity to grow with me. 

BRN: I presume it was a cash business. 

TS: It was. 

BRN: Especially if you don’t have good, honest people, you’re shrinkage might be significant. 

TS: Yes. That was one of the hard things about that kind of business. If you aren’t right there at the cash register…The third shop was as far as I got in terms of expansion because it was hard to manage that. 

BRN: Now you told me before, I recall, that you were going to join your buddy with the sandwich shop in Virginia Beach and not go to college, but your father had other ideas. 

TS: Yes. I went to my dad and told him our plans and that I was not going to college, even though I had a full scholarship to play football. He insisted that I put that on the side and go to Appalachian, which as it turned out was good advice.  Then when I told him I was going to open Yogi’s in Boone…well from a family standpoint we didn’t have the financial resources to do that, but like I said, I aggravated a banker long enough that he saw fit to give me loan. 

That most recent 13% hike in property taxes? That got my attention.

BRN: What did your mom and dad do? 

TS: My mother didn’t work. There were four boys and a girl in my family. 

BRN: Better not say too loudly these days that a homemaker doesn’t work! 

TS (laughing): Yeah, that’s for sure. They actually work very hard keeping a family together, especially a larger one. 

My dad worked in the electrical business, as an electrician. 

BRN: What was it about Appalachian State that brought you here other than the scholarship offer? 

TS: Being in Virginia Beach, I had no idea where App State even was. My football coach in high school, who became the principal, played for Coach Brakefield when he coached at Wofford College.  He took us down to Spartanburg when Wofford won those 21 games in a row, right before Brakefield left there, and they played for the NAIA championship.  

About 10 of the guys on the Wofford team that year were from the Virginia Beach area. So my principal had recruited for Coach Brakefield and helped him identify players. So when Brakefield came to Appalachian, he did the same thing. We had several players from the Virginia Beach area come up here. Rick Beasley, for example, is a well-known name at Appalachian State. He was from Virginia Beach at that time. 

BRN: Did you have scholarship offers anywhere else? 

TS: Yes. I had offers from North Carolina and South Carolina. 

BRN: Being a beach boy, what did you think about the mountains? 

TS: I loved it. First time I came, we got caught in the snow. It was the first time I had seen a lot of snow like that. It was enjoyable. I love the mountains AND the beach. You can’t find two better places. 

BRN: What was your major or primary academic interest? 

TS: I majored in physical education. I thought I wanted to be a high school football coach and teacher. Obviously, business took over. I had that entrepreneurial streak in me and that’s what I went after.  

BRN: Was that a result of your experience with Yogi’s, that you got caught up with the entrepreneurship thing? 

TS: Well, with leadership you either have it or you don’t. I was captain of the football team in high school and captain of the football team up here at Appalachian. I’ve always had some leadership ability, I guess. So once I started the sandwich shop and had the opportunity to work with other people to help them become successful, I saw some rewards in being an entrepreneur.  

BRN: So you graduated in ’75…what was your career path after graduating? 

TS: I ran the sub shops for six or seven years and then I started branching out into real estate, buying some rental properties. I had a convenience store over in the Mars Hill area. Different ventures like that, but mostly in apartment rentals and real estate.  

Then as I was doing that, I started looking at the opportunity to sell steel buildings. Another friend of mine from Virginia Beach was actually in the business. He came up here to sell a building down in Lenoir, and I rode with him on a sales call one day.  I liked what I saw and the business opportunity it presented, so I started selling buildings on the side. Then I decided to get into it with both feet. I hired a salesman, then another salesman. Three years later I had the largest sales force in the country selling steel buildings for that particular manufacturer, which was based in Toronto. I ended up buying out the manufacturer. We became partners. The owner up there ran the manufacturing part and we did the selling. 

There are a lot of opportunities to make Watauga County a better place to live, work and play for our children and grandchildren.

BRN: Looking at all of these businesses, how did you finance them? Was it all organic financing, creating them out of previous profits, or what? 

TS: It was extremely hard back then. Ninety percent of all the property I bought had to be owner financed. I didn’t have any credit or assets to get a loan. Ten or fifteen years into it, I never had a bank loan. From a business standpoint, I grew the companies out of cash flow. I never have been much on debt. Mostly we have grown the companies with cash that we earned. 

BRN: Through the years you have built a roster of companies that you own. You told me before that your steel buildings business led you to some work with military armaments. 

TS: Yes, my first one was an arsenal building. The way we were structured we could only do regional marketing, not national marketing. But when we finally bought the manufacturing company, we went nationwide.   We could advertise in magazines like Field & Stream and Popular Mechanics, nationwide, because we had a partnership we could rely on.  That facilitated our tremendous growth in the early 1990s. I noticed that we had a lot of exposure with really just one product. My partners were satisfied with just that, but I decided to diversify and started some other product lines.  

One particular one resulted from some local tree farmers coming to me and wanting to store their pesticides. I started investigating and researching the best ways to store pesticides and chemicals, then opened a chemical storage company manufacturing explosion-proof buildings with various features so that if there was a spill, it was all captured inside the building. 

We mostly sold those to Fortune 500 companies, like pharmaceuticals. But with essentially the same product line we started getting into some ammunition storage that was ATF-approved.  So we branched off with another business selling those. That got us into building armories and selling to the military. They shipped them to bases all over the world, such as to Afghanistan, and to all the bases in the United States.  

That branched into another business for another type of building for sensitive information. The generals would go into these rooms for their planning.  The building would muffle their voices so the enemy couldn’t learn their plans.  In Washington, D.C. and places like that, you’ll have these buildings inside of structures.  We did a portable one, so that you could ship it to Afghanistan or other places around the world.  

We diversified into several different companies. And we were fortunate to have Baird Capital come in and buy the chemical business from me. Plus, there was only one other company, out of Kentucky, in the explosives buildings business. They ended up buying our explosives-related business.  

Now we are doing similar engineering and design, but building safe rooms and underground storage for homes, prepping customers  for catastrophies like tornadoes. Out in the Midwest we do storm shelters. Then for nuclear fallout, we have a building that goes underground that you can protect yourself. 

BRN: I know that you have Mountaineer Cleaners now, and Elephant Structures. What is Elephant Structure? 

TS: We build and sell backyard shop buildings.  We also have Harmony Timber Frame, which does high-end timber frames for homes and commercial applications. It is a niche market. 

BRN: Lots of businesses, but let’s transition to talking about your bid to get elected as a County Commissioner.  What do you think that depth of business experience will help you bring to the government role? 

Without water and sewer for buildings, you aren’t going to create jobs.

TS: I have never been much involved on the political side, but in watching our county and thinking about the opportunities that our children and grandchildren are going to be facing over the next 20 years, I thought I had something to contribute. 

tommy sofieldParticularly with this last time when they came up with a 13% increase in our property taxes, that got my attention. The county government is basically a business. You have revenue and expenses, but you are running it with other people’s money. And it is coerced money.  I just feel like the money controlled by the county isn’t being properly spent and there are a lot of opportunities to make Watauga County a better place to live, work and play for our children and grandchildren.  I thought that if I can be of some help, take some of my business background and leadership ability to the county…that’s why I decided to run for County Commissioner. 

BRN: The proposed recreation center carries a price tag, I understand, of between $20 million and $30 million, possibly more. We understand the importance of it, but Blowing Rock residents are particularly concerned about some basic services. Specifically, there are concerns about ambulance response times that are well beyond the standard of what in the industry is considered acceptable.  For years, I understand, Blowing Rock was offering an ambulance bay in the new fire station on Valley Blvd., basically giving the County the space for free.  A couple of years ago the County Commissioners decided they had to address the even longer response times in the western part of the county first, and rightfully so.  I think the question people here are asking, is whether the County Commissioners should have a priority of bringing something basic, like emergency services, up to snuff countywide before or even at the same time as a fancy recreation center?  Frankly, yes, the current county recreation facilities are in many respects an embarrassment and Director Steve Poulos and his staff deserve our kudos for doing a lot with so little, but where is the balance in prioritization relative to basic services? 

Now the County has finally approved one 12-hour shift for an ambulance based in Blowing Rock and that is largely because there has been such an outcry from citizens here about raising taxes to build a recreation center in Boone that relatively few people in Blowing Rock are likely to use.  So a 12-hour shift for an ambulance in Blowing Rock on what was described to us as on an experimental basis…well, that’s a start, but should ALL citizens in Watauga County have better 24-hour access to basic services, before we spend money on more elaborate facilities, such as a recreation center? Does that question make sense? If we are raising taxes, shouldn’t it first be to fund basic services?

TS: It is an excellent and timely question. As we look at those sorts of things, that’s where hopefully I can bring some expertise to the table. There is clearly a need for emergency services as a priority, to serve our citizens properly. But there is also a need for a recreation center for some of our other children in the county who are deprived and don’t have the economic or financial means that many others have. They also deserve to have a rec center. We could go through all of the sociological rationale, but if you look at both of those missions from a business standpoint, they both have to be operated profitably. Instead of being a drain where you are feeding something every year, you have to ask how you can do these things. In the case of ambulance service, that is a basic service being paid for by taxpayers really on a standby basis because the true cost is borne by the patients being transported.  The recreation center, even while providing services to disadvantaged youth at low cost and no-cost, should be operating to the extent possible on a self-sustaining basis through use fees or special events.

Schools. In some cases we have 50 to 80-year-old buildings out there in our schools. You are not going to solve all of the problems in one or two years, but we have pressing school infrastructure needs.

I don’t think we need a recreation center to represent a negative cash flow on our citizens year after year. It needs to carry itself, year after year…

The county needs to come up with a long-term plan for the next 15-20 years. But you have to start somewhere for your plan. Some of the planning needs to get started. Right now, I don’t really see a plan for Watauga County’s future. 

Jobs. We need jobs in Watauga County, for our children and grandchildren. Without water and sewer for buildings, you aren’t going to be able to create jobs. There are numerous things that need to be looked at, but mostly they are not going to be done in a one or two year timeframe. You have to plan and work your budgets to make sure they won’t be a drain on the citizens of our county. 

In regards to the recreation center, I have a grandson who goes around all over the state to play basketball and such. Traveling around to all of these other cities and counties and observing, they are taking their recreation departments and converting them into a positive economic cash flow for the area. When you go to a tournament and you spend the night. We are spending the night in lodging establishments and eating at restaurants.  When we do a rec center here, those are the sorts of activities we need to support it. I don’t think we need a rec center to represent a negative cash flow on our citizens year after year. It needs to carry itself year after year with a complete program that is purposefully designed, at least in large measure around these kinds of tournaments or events. Where else would you rather go in June, July or August than to the mountains to play ball games? 

BRN: Even after the recent hikes in property taxes, some folks point out that Watauga County’s tax rate is still low or relatively minor compared to much of the rest of North Carolina. You talked about services being profitable, but is it possible for some of these services to be profitable without having to raise property taxes? 

TS: It is my understanding that a couple of years ago we ran the budget and actually had a surplus, and put some money back into the general fund. That’s good management. If, however, we didn’t serve the needs of the county with these other items and we are just putting money back at the same time, then that is not good management.  

Now, I say profitable, but it is probably more accurate to say that some of these divisions can be self-sustaining, where they support themselves. It’s a little misleading on our tax base. We may be among the lowest in the state as far as the number or rate of the tax, but when you factor in the value of the land against which those tax rates are applied, all of a sudden we are not the lowest tax. Here in the mountains, much of the land is more valuable than in the Piedmont. 

At the end of the day, it always comes back to how much money are we bringing in and how efficient are you being with that money. 

BRN: You mentioned that Watauga County needs jobs for our children and grandchildren. What can the Commissioners do toward job creation?

If we are putting money back into the general fund with a surplus but not serving the needs of our citizens, that is not good management.

TS: You know, we have some of the brightest kids coming out of Appalachian State and some of them are from our own High Country communities. Whether it is out of the Walker College of Business or the Sustainable Technology program or Health Sciences, so many of them are coming out of school and having to go to Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, or someplace else to find a job. 

One of the problems here is that we don’t have an abundance of small commercial buildings.  For students who might be entrepreneurial, we don’t have smaller offices where they can design their product and start out in.  If you look at a lot of the counties that have been successful growing these small businesses, they have a 3,000 or 4,000, or 5,000 square foot building as an office warehouse.  

Let’s say someone comes out of Appalachian and has an idea for a mountain biking-related product. They could start out with a small building. They don’t need a 30,000 or 40,000 square foot building and they can’t afford it. We need some of those smaller structures in our area to be able to support new small businesses. 

The other thing we need is low income housing. There is a tremendous need for both low income housing and those smaller business buildings, but neither of those things are going to happen without water and sewer.  You have to start expanding your water and sewer to be able to grow into the low income housing and smaller commercial development. 

That said, you want to have controlled growth and make sure you are growing into the right industries. For our mountains, that is critical. We have a beautiful place to live and we don’t want to give that up. But 10 or 15 years from now, we have to start thinking about the ability of our children and grandchildren have places to find a job without leaving the area. 

BRN: Does the County have water and sewer, or are you implying that the parts of the county you want to develop for small business growth or low income housing should be annexed into a town municipality, more than likely either Boone or Blowing Rock? 

TS: Well, certainly annexation is one way to go, but even where annexation is not desirable, we should be able to develop partnerships with the municipalities like Boone or Blowing Rock. Economic development and job creation are in everyone’s best interests, ultimately. 

BRN: Could you talk about the tension that maybe exists between low income housing and a segment of the population that says, “Not here”? 

There are pockets of affordable housing apartments, but we just need more of them and that isn’t possible without water and sewer.

TS: When you talk about low-income housing you are really talking about affordable housing. We are limited with our terrain. In the Piedmont, you could go just about anywhere and build low-income housing. We are limited by terrain as to where you can put an affordable housing subdivision of, say, 50-70 homes. I was just over in Wytheville, Virginia and they have done a great job with an affordable housing project over there. What made it possible was water and sewer. Without water and sewer, you can’t have a little neighborhood of 40-50 houses and expect everyone to have their own septic tank and water well.  Our terrain is conducive to municipal water and sewer, but we just have never expanded it.

There are pockets of affordable housing apartments in the region, but we just need more of them and that isn’t possible without water and sewer. 

BRN: Where in the county do you see the most opportunity for the kinds of economic development you are talking about? 

TS: In the next 10-20 years, with proper planning you could have good growth out towards Deep Gap, but water and sewer is a must. That U.S. 321 corridor serves not only as a connection to the Piedmont region to the east, but also to Ashe County up north. There are federal grants available. We just shouldn’t be missing these opportunities to extend water and sewer to areas that we should be planning for growth. 

BRN: You have talked about controlled growth.  What are your thoughts on density, in general, say in Boone? 

TS: Well, that really becomes more of an issue for the Boone Town Council, but it is basically about the same thing. Because of what we have done, or rather not done because we haven’t expanded our water and sewer, we are having to grow “up,” building taller and taller buildings and creating higher densities. If you take an apartment building with, say, 70 units, well you can’t reasonably put that on a septic tank sewer system and an independent water well, either. You really need access to municipal water and sewer. So as a community we need to decide where we want to grow and decide, collectively, as a town and a county to plan for it. That comes back again to a 10-15 year plan. You aren’t going to achieve that within a year or two. 

Where you have an ETJ that is controlled by a town but not receiving town services, that is a problem.

BRN: In other parts of the country…let’s just take Beverly Hills and Hollywood in Los Angeles, the municipalities allow for construction on the sides of the hills and mountains. Some people actually think that it is pretty, especially at night, because of the lights. But here in the High Country, especially in Boone, there is a lot of talk about protecting what they call “viewshed”.  How much of the zoning or ETJ management around Boone, in your opinion, is spot on or short-sighted when you start thinking about economic development? 

TS: Well, cooperation between the County and the Town of Boone has at times been a sticking point, for years.  Where you have an ETJ that is controlled by a town but not receiving town services, that is a problem. So it was probably a good thing that the ETJ was lifted the way it was.  

If you look at other towns in the mountains, such as Asheville. The city and Buncombe County grew. Now some of the folks may not like the way that Asheville grew, but they had expanded water and sewer all the way out to Candler to the west and to Black Mountain to the east. That enabled them to grow.  They have a great tax base and jobs for their children and grandchildren. They have some good industries over there. They are doing very well. I don’t think we want to become another Asheville, but we have an opportunity to grow some and provide our residents, particularly our young people, with an opportunity to stay. Especially when you think about the students coming out of Appalachian, why are we letting the brightest and smartest get away? It’s a brain drain for the High Country when they have to go to Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, or Greensboro to find a job. 

Like it or not, technology and all of these new innovative ways of life are coming. You have to be open-minded about it.  Automation, artificial intelligence, and so much more. I have gotten involved with a group of people up here to start High Country Impact Fund, which is an angel investor fund to help grow small businesses. For example, we have recently met with a candidate entrepreneur who is talking about moving his various tech people up here from Raleigh. That is a great opportunity for this region. It is low impact to the environment. They don’t need big factories, but it offers great opportunities for jobs.  There couldn’t be a better place than Boone, Blowing Rock and Watauga County to serve as an incubator for small businesses springing up in our area. 

BRN: How much population growth can we experience up here with the water resources we have available to us? 

TS: That is a great question, but I don’t yet know the answer to it. I know that with the new water intake from the New River, we should have quite a bit more in terms of water capacity. Growth and how much growth…those are the things you really need to plan for. 

For something like a 10-15 year plan, public transit is trhe sort of thing we need to start looking at now, and plan for it.

I own a light manufacturing business here and we employ 75-100 people. We need more businesses that size and smaller in our area. We don’t need big factories. The roads and transportation arteries aren’t conducive to big manufacturing.  We just don’t have the infrastructure for it. 

BRN: You mean this 0.9 acre parcel here in Blowing Rock that is behind Speckled Trout, you don’t want to put a new Boeing or Toyota plant in there? 

TS (laughing): No! 

BRN: With the High Country Impact Fund, what are the parameters for businesses you are looking to help get started or to grow? 

TS: The exciting thing is that we are open to just about any industry. Obviously, we will see a lot of technology. Maybe it will be someone interested in supplying products related to mountain climbing or hiking, activities that are indigenous to this region. The main thing is that if the opportunity isn’t in Watauga County, it is in the surrounding three or four counties. We aren’t taking the fund outside of our area here in the High Country. We are not investing in Knoxville or Raleigh, or places like that. This is designed for the High Country. 

BRN: What are your thoughts on public transit in the High Country? 

TS: Obviously, the current public transit we have is AppleCart, primarily to serve the college kids at Appalachian State. I think they go out into the outskirts of Boone. It has been a great asset to the area and they do a very good job. As far as expanding public transit, I know there are some social programs to help the needful people further out in the county, and “Meals on Wheels” for the elderly and stuff like that. I am not sure we are doing as good a job as we possibly could, but that is one of those areas that I need to get more attuned, to do more research as I get more involved. 

For something like a 10-15 year plan, public transit is the sort of thing we need to start looking at now, and plan for it.  If we look at Boone, I’m not sure that 10 or 15 years ago we did the proper planning for some of the things we are facing right now. 

You need to have the lowest tax rate you can and still run things efficiently. After that, in using the tax revenue, schools are high on my list of priorities. And low income housing needs to be dealt with in our county.

And that is also true at the county level. The schools are a good example. We have one of the very best school systems in North Carolina, but our teachers need more resources for the classroom without taking money out of their own pockets to provide them. And the buildings…when we are sending our grandchildren to a school building that is 80 years old, that is something that we need to change. 

BRN: Well, that brings us back to the question of what are the basic things a county government should be providing its citizens. 

TS: First off, you need to have the lowest tax rate that you can and still run things efficiently. After that, in using the tax revenue, schools are high on my list of priorities. Low income housing needs to be dealt with in our county.  

Clearly, the county has a responsibility for fostering job development. Things change so you have to look out 10-20 years. Look what happened to the furniture industry. It is a different world we are living in. You have to adapt. 

BRN: Watauga County has among the highest poverty rates in the state, something like 31.4% living below the poverty line, and you wonder how that can be with App State here and all the affluence around the county. Even as affluent as Blowing Rock is reported to be, you have north of 20% of the students at Blowing Rock School are on some kind of subsidized meal plan. 

We need good-paying jobs. We have to go beyond minimum wage opportunities and bring businesses and industries into the area. We can’t just rely on tourism.

TS: Well, part of the problem is that we have service jobs here. Restaurants and hotels with minimum wage jobs. We need good-paying jobs. We have to go beyond minimum wage opportunities and bring businesses and industries in. We can’t just rely on tourism.

BRN: A good example of that might be ECRS. 

TS: That’s exactly right. Pete (Catoe) has done a great job, starting out on his own in his garage and now I think he employs over 100 people. They have good wages.  There are numerous opportunities for us to have similar types of companies right here in our area. 

BRN: One of the limiting factors to any kind of economic development is an area’s transportation infrastructure. We don’t have rail up here. We have an airstrip, but not really an airport. Even when you look at App State and its aspirations to grow a major college athletic program, where teams have to fly into Charlotte or, at best, Hickory and then driving at least an hour up here by bus, that’s problematic.  Lodging of course is a factor, too. The closest full service hotel to meet the needs of a major college football team is in Banner Elk. 

This is a far-flung question, but is there someplace up here where we can have an airport and is that something that we want, whether it is out toward Ashe County or north towards Mountain City? 

TS: Samaritan’s Purse looked at this some years ago. They looked at trying to extend the Boone airport, which is the airstrip you referred to, and they even looked at an area up toward Deep Gap. But the community at that time just was not supportive. 

Designing robotics is going to be big. Why build a robotic design center in Raleigh when you can build it here?

But that is part of our plans for growth. You go back to Asheville. They have good interstate highways. They have good hospitals and a healthcare system. And they have a great airport. With that kind of transportation infrastructure, you are going to develop trucking — and grow.  I love where we live at and I am not all about wanting all of those things but having a small airport where teams can get in and out and business people could get in and out of the area would be a help. But frankly, I don’t see the opportunity for an airport in Watauga County. Small business is where the growth is in most of the United States. 

BRN: How do you define small business? 

TS: Startup or early stage companies will do $1 million to $2 million in revenue.  More established, successful small businesses will be closer to $30 million and $40 million. They are light manufacturing and technology businesses. Designing robotics is going to be big. Why build a robotic design center in Raleigh when you can build it here? 

BRN: Do we have the broadband infrastructure to support those types of businesses? 

TS: Yes, that is one of the best things we have, the tunnel of information capacity that we have through Skybest. We are in good shape to support the tech industry.  That broadband pipeline is already a major positive, including for non-profits. You know, Samaritan’s Purse has been a great neighbor up here. Where is there a better place to headquarter a non-profit than up here?  But you have to have the building and infrastructure like water and sewer for them to be able to grow. 

I would venture to say that because of our area’s lack of those kinds of infrastructure, Samaritan’s Purse has gone to Wilkesboro. They have just built a big new warehouse down there, and they fly in and out of Wilkesboro for their disaster missions. They can’t grow up here. 

In Blowing Rock is a good example of a small building that allowed Samaritan’s Purse to grow. They bought the former Performing Arts Center and turned it into their Training Center. Now they are bringing in people from all over the world. That’s having a positive economic impact not just on Blowing Rock, but the entire High Country, but it was not possible without that relatively small building with water and sewer. 

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2 Comments

  1. Kenny West

    Very good interview. With all due respect to Mr. Sofield, I think he would be better served not choosing to compare to Asheville so much. Kenny West

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  2. Rick Woods

    Thoughtful interview with many great points. I appreciate Tommy being willing to serve the citizens of Watauga county and using his expertise and knowledge to grow jobs and bring new businesses here. I have personally known Tommy since 1984 and believe he is sincere in his desire to make Watauga county the best place in North Carolina to raise a family. He is a very busy man so serving our county is a sacrifice for both him, his family and businesses. Tommy is the type of individuals we need to manage our economic growth and development. I strongly encourage everyone to vote for Tommy, he will be good for our future.

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