Resisting change, or keeping up with the times?

Resisting change, or keeping up with the times?
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By David Rogers. April 17, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Change is a fact of life, even in Blowing Rock.

In the late 1800s, Blowing Rock’s Main Street and the local transportation arteries that fed into it were dirt and gravel roads.  Historical accounts from those days report that sheep, cattle, goats, horses and donkeys freely roamed the area, up and down and around what we now call downtown.

Starting in 1892, an ordinance for fencing livestock was debated. Four years later, the measure passed but this issue about fencing livestock was so contentious that it had to be reaffirmed in another township vote in 1900 and even again in 1901.

The farmers wanted to let their livestock graze wherever they could find the best forage, as they had done for years. They had lived in and around Blowing Rock far longer than the relative newcomers, who wanted to “clean-up” the town because they saw financial opportunity in attracting tourists. Especially in the summer months when the heat was so oppressive off the mountain, affluent folks from the Piedmont and coastal plains and from as far away as Georgia, Florida and Alabama, were willing to migrate to the mountains from late May through October.  These weren’t day-trippers, but scores, even hundreds of people wanting to call Blowing Rock home for months at a time.

The times were a-changin’ and having cows and sheep pooping on Main Street just wouldn’t do.

In short, the farmers lost the battle. As modes of transportation improved and new roads were carved up and along the mountainsides, market demand centered around tourism and seasonal hospitality reached critical mass. The times were a-changin’ and having cows and sheep pooping on Main Street just wouldn’t do.  They just couldn’t keep this little corner of High Country heaven to themselves anymore.

The landscape of Blowing Rock was changing in other ways, too. In 1887, a big white house was built, with Southern plantation-style white columns out front.  There was undoubtedly a lot of tongue-wagging about it because it was far different than any other building in town.  Some thought it an improvement, but others undoubtedly said, “It doesn’t fit the character of our village.”

But change won out. Over the years, that building evolved as a Main Street icon, serving as a seasonal residence and later home to a retail shop or two, but until recently it housed a thriving real estate firm — until it became untenable a few years ago, a dilapidated old building that nobody wanted.

The Green Park Inn went up in 1882 and it was a different, even larger structure than these parts had seen, but then it was on the far outskirts of Blowing Rock so wasn’t considered part of the downtown village character. “Green Park” even had its own post office that operated from inside the hotel.

Blowing Rock Hotel rose on South Main in 1889. Other than the more ardent Historical Society members, today most folks living in Blowing Rock don’t even know where it was. The Blowing Rock Hotel closed its doors about 1939. According to the book, Post Cards of Historic Blowing Rock, the hotel served guests for some 50 years, but all that remained after demolition were two cottages that were restored and turned into private residences.

Change happens and is sometimes transparent, other times just necessary and accepted as a fact of life.

Change evolves slowly sometimes, but other times quite rapidly. Change happens and is sometimes transparent, other times just necessary and accepted as a fact of life. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry Mildred and Bob didn’t make a go of it running that gift shop. They had such nice things.”

The three-story Watauga Inn was built in 1888, right in the middle of town. It is probably a good bet that its height exceeded today’s 30-foot ordinance for building height, so its construction likely would have been denied by the current Planning Board and Town Council.  Density might have been an issue, too, because there were a number of rooms, as well as some standalone cottages around the perimeter. Yep, it is a good thing that it was built when it was because today people would complain about the traffic such a business would bring to the village, so its development would be a no-no.

The Watauga Inn fell victim to a fire in the early 1900s, was rebuilt, then once again destroyed by fire – at which point what remained was demolished and the land cleared. Only the former cottage that now houses the 1888 Museum remains. The rest of the property became Blowing Rock Park, what we know today as Memorial Park.

Shootem Up, Annie

Since I moved here 17 years ago, I frequently have heard about how grand of a venue Mayview Manor was, sitting on the edge of the gorge.  But can you imagine the concern of the townspeople when Mayview Manor was built in 1922?  We didn’t hear of anybody comparing it to the future “Sugar Top” over in Avery County, but that 4-story structure would have been impermissible by today’s ordinances for building height and density and increases in traffic.

Annie Oakley was surely blamed for any commotion over there on the gorge.  In 1924, just two years after Mayview Manor opened, the famed sharpshooting femme fatale helped the hotel start a gun club. She became the club’s manager and, at 73 years young, for the grand opening of the gun club she bested all comers by hitting 98 out of 100 clay pigeons in a shooting contest.

I imagine there was more than a little bit of distress among the neighbors in those fancy neighboring houses along Wonderland Trail as she fired round after round from her blunderbuss, the boom-boom-booms of the shotgun echoing off the walls of the gorge and rattling their windows.

Like so much of Blowing Rock, things have changed.  Mayview Manor is no more, its historic walls that had hosted the likes of Margaret Mitchell and Woodrow Wilson bulldozed to shreds, torn down in 1978 after standing as a shuttered eyesore for a dozen years. Lodging enterprises have had to continually update themselves to stay up with the times, always trying to match up with market demand — or find themselves quite literally falling by the wayside.

The condo buildings are larger structures that seem even bigger because of the openness that was there before.

After almost 60 years as a healthcare icon in town, Blowing Rock Hospital was shuttered and then last year demolished and carted away, truckload by truckload.  It is giving way to luxury condominiums on that Chestnut Hill location.  Used to be, when you drove up Chestnut, there was a mostly empty gravel and broken asphalt parking lot and some diagonal parking on the street, all in front of the low profile, one-story medical clinic that was set back some 50 feet from the street.  Of course, the clinic connected farther back with the much larger hospital structure, but along Chestnut it was fairly open space.

The luxury condominiums are a dramatically different use of the property and, at the outset, a bit of a shock when you drive by. But that’s all a matter of perspective because of the openness that was there before with the vacant lot, the parking, and the 50-foot setback in front of the clinic.  However well designed, the condo buildings are larger structures that seem even bigger because of the openness that was there before.

Critics of the development describe it as monstrous and Blowing Rock’s version of “Sugar Top,” because you can see it from miles away, even as far away as Flat Top Manor and at various viewpoints along the carriage trails of the Cone Estate.

They forget, of course, that Blowing Rock Hospital was a large structure that could be seen from those very same viewpoints.  When I first moved to Blowing Rock 18 years ago, I remember my first expedition walking up the Cone Manor carriage trail to the fire tower.  About two-thirds of the way up, I looked back at what was then still an unfamiliar town to me.  I scanned across the valley and up the ridgeline – and I was prompted to ask my companion what factory that was in the distance.  It wasn’t a factory, I was told, but Blowing Rock Hospital.

Things change. The economy changes. The demographics change. Market demand changes. The physical environment changes.

The Chestnut Hill condo development may not be the perfect “fit” for everyone in town, but consider this: Mayview Manor ceased operations in 1966. Once shuttered, it was left an empty, decaying monument to the high times of yesteryear before being torn down in 1978. Given the current discussion about Chestnut Hill, it is more than ironic that Mayview Manor, once torn down, was replaced by a future large condominium project.

More than likely, the old hospital buildings weren’t going to be demolished and carted away until a new investor was found and new development plans were approved.  Would the critics of today’s condo development prefer old decaying buildings remain there for a dozen years, like what happened with Mayview?  Certainly, migrant vagrants would welcome the old hospital building to remain so they could get in out of the weather even if some of the windows had been smashed by vandals.  At the very least it would have been an excellent Adventureland for exploring grandkids in town on holiday.

Things change. The economy changes. The demographics change. Market demands change. The physical environment changes.  What is it that makes Blowing Rock special and so popular? Is it really the village charm? Or is Blowing Rock’s appeal today the same as it has mostly always been, the weather, especially during the summer and the autumn leaves?

Hermit, Recluse, or Opportunist?

A couple of weeks ago more than 100 of us attended a “neighborhood meeting” to discuss the future of that old white house with the Southern plantation-style columns out front. What back in 1887 had dramatically changed the visual character of Main Street evolved over the oh, so many decades as an iconic structure representing the village charm.  Now, like so many buildings that have come and gone before it, 1850 Main Street is just a dilapidated old building that needs to be torn down.  A development proposal is on the table. CLICK HERE to revisit the development story.

As with the Chestnut Hill condo development, whatever goes into the 0.3+ acre parcel is likely to be very much different, and bigger.  Bigger, because the market dynamics dictate it.  Property values on Main Street have risen.  To justify any kind of development that makes sense given the land value, the developer will have to use as much of the property as possible.  There won’t be a 49-foot setback with a yard and gardens out front like there is today. And whatever goes in there will seem just that much bigger because of the openness that was there before. It is a matter of perspective and perception.

Sometimes living in an idyllic setting we forget – or more likely ignore – what is happening off the mountain.  A lot of what is happening at the lower elevations is, frankly, change: new housing developments, new businesses, new technologies and a lot of them are bringing new creature comforts.

The world is growing up around us.  It’s a lot like that one-time middle-aged man who over a quarter of a century kept his nose buried in his business. One day he wakes up to discover that he is a grandpa who missed watching his kids grow up because he was too busy minding his profits.  Didn’t they write a Christmas story about him?

There are, of course, a number of folks who would just as soon the world grow up around us — and without us.

But as much as we treasure history and the way things were, change will ultimately outlive us. It’s fun to go to Tweetise a couple of times a year and ride the steam engine-pulled train, watch some cowboys and Indians, and be entertained by the winsome dancing girls in the saloon, but do we really want to live that way 24/7/365?

However noble the sentiment, digging in our heels in front of a steaming locomotive pulling a freight train hellbent on adapting to changing times serves little purpose.  It will leave, at best, a fair amount of angst. At worst, blindly digging in for the sake of digging in will ultimately destroy us. We’ll get run over.

For those who are unaware, the rest of the world is experiencing, even thriving in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The first Industrial Revolution is where we harnessed the power of mechanical equipment and water. Think steam engines powering paddle wheelers up the Hudson River or steam-powered locomotives racing across the Great Plains and chugging up and down the Rocky Mountains – or Tweetsie.

The second Industrial Revolution was marked by the introduction of Electricity and Mass Production. Think Thomas Edison’s light bulb and Henry Ford’s assembly lines.

The Fourth Industrial revolution is bringing changes that were only recently the stuff of science fiction novels or even unheard of even a couple of decades ago.

In the third Industrial Revolution, we humans used the better tools we created in the second industrial revolution to harness the power of Information Technology.  Think computers, and even robots and automation.

In the fourth Industrial Revolution, we now have tools that can build and create things many times faster than ever before. They are bringing change like nothing before, changes that were only recently the stuff of science fiction novels or unheard of even a couple of decades ago. Think machine learning, genetics, 3D printing, biotechnology, nanotechnology, the Internet of Things, quantum computers.

Now we may want to live up here in a historical bubble called Blowing Rock and continue to warmly greet and play with our seasonal brothers and sisters, as well as entertain hundreds of day-trippers on weekends, but the reality is that they are bringing change with them. They are bringing cell phones to stay in touch with jobs and family across the nation and around the world – and they expect, even demand that they can find good coverage without asking, “Can you hear me now?”

Especially among the younger populations, they expect WiFi so they can use their laptops, tablets and smartphones to check on and control things back home, as well as read their email.

Can you hear me now?

They bring these exciting creature comforts into our lives. We see them — and then we want them, too.  Kids in school read and learn about these developments and want to experience them firsthand, but the influence doesn’t stop there. Among the fastest-growing demographics of people using the Internet is comprised of women over 70.

Change is an immutable force to be reckoned with.  Where it seems like tradition or possibly even laws serve as an impediment to change, those impediments are being questioned. Traditional property management companies aside, Airbnb and VRBO are relatively new online platforms allowing people to rent their homes, fully or in part when they aren’t using those properties themselves. Rather than embrace a mechanism for collecting more tax revenue to pay for needed infrastructure, some municipalities are fighting those short-term rentals, making them illegal.

And yet, the catalysts for change are not standing still. Instead, they are questioning the constitutionality of a municipality being able to dictate what economic benefit they can or cannot derive from property ownership. And they are pointing out with academic studies rather than biased conjecture, that short-term rentals actually push surrounding property values higher, rather than lower, because of competition (market demand) for property assets that yield tangible economic benefits.

A couple of years ago, a very insightful businessman observed that with improvements to our highways and the introduction of other modes of transportation in response to population growth and advances in technology, Blowing Rock will soon be little more than a bedroom community of Charlotte.

In short, change is barrelling full bore down the tracks of time, like it or not.  We can dig in and resist change — and get run over by it. Or we can embrace change, manage it, and benefit from it.

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