Home Government Blowing Rock Blowing Rock ONE on ONE with…Ray Pickett, Candidate for Commissioner

Blowing Rock ONE on ONE with…Ray Pickett, Candidate for Commissioner

By David Rogers. October 23, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — First and foremost, candidates for public office are people — each with a background not just in Blowing Rock, but past experiences that most voters don’t have a chance to become familiar with.

All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

Blowing Rock News is pleased to present these transcripts of hour-plus interviews with each of the four candidates for the two open seats on the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners. They are intended as a service to the community, going well beyond the scope of either of the earlier candidate forums. Our purpose with these interviews is to get to know the person, his background, and his qualifications for the job of commissioner, all wrapped up in a discussion of key issues that we think are of interest to Blowing Rock voters — and we give each candidate an opportunity to articulate his views.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Neither the order in which these interviews is presented nor the interviews themselves is intended as an endorsement of any candidate.


The Other Candidate Interview Links


RAY PICKETT

BRN: Where are you from and how did you get to Blowing Rock?

RP: I got to BR originally in 1985 when Mom and Dad bought the Boxwood (Inn), when I was in high school.

BRN: You are probably the closest we have among the commissioner candidates for the current election to being a native.  What was it like as a boy becoming a young man, growing up in the High Country?

RP: As a kid in high school, we had a good time. We enjoyed living here, but being young we were (attracted) to the bright lights of the big city. We were all looking to go off and do something exciting.

BRN: Was your earlier life as a youth, before your parents moved you all to Blowing Rock, was that in a more urban setting, a big city?

RP: No. I was originally born in Charlotte, but we moved when I was quite young. We lived in Wilmington. We lived on a farm in Duplin County. We live in Elizabethtown. We always lived in smaller towns. Like a lot of young men, I was interested in going to a big city and see what I could do. So I did. I went to Raleigh.

After high school, I went to Caldwell Community College for two years. I was thinking about going into biomedical equipment technology, but instead I went into restaurant management – a completely different direction!

BRN: Was that a quick decision?

RP: Not really. I did two internships in Raleigh, in the biomed field, then ran into an old girlfriend from high school, from before we moved to Blowing Rock. We started dating and I decided I wanted to stay there. We decided to get married, so I went into restaurants. At the time, restaurant were paying better than biomed.

BRN: From restaurant management in Raleigh, how did you find your way back up here to Blowing Rock?

RP (laughter): Divorce! 10 years later.

Mom & Dad still owned the Boxwood. Dad called to say that the guy who previously owned the Blowing Rock Inn wanted to sell it. By this time, Melissa and I were dating, so we came up and took a look at it. The company in Raleigh that we both were working for, we had a sense that there were some major changes coming so we decided the timing was right for us to leave it. That turned out to be a good decision. Sometimes when you see the writing on the wall…We were prepared to go on with our lives, so we did. Nineteen years later, we are still here!

BRN: What was your interest and motivation for getting involved in community service?

RP: We had been living here for a few years and I had volunteered for some things, small things like helping out with some local events. Dad got on Town Council as a commissioner so I thought it was a good time to see if there was anything more I could do than volunteer at events and such. Dad actually is the guy I credit for suggesting that I get on the Planning Board. He said that way I could get involved with the town and do some things. So I applied and got on. I really enjoyed serving on the Planning Board, for four years. We did a lot during that time and it was enjoyable. I don’t recall there being any major issues, but there were a couple of projects. Most of it was trying to clean up some of the (Land Use) Code. We made the language more understandable to a lay person.

BRN: That seems like an ongoing process.

RP (chuckling): It is, at that. You are constantly trying to make it easier for people to understand and not having to have a lawyer to figure it out for you. Especially smaller businesses, they don’t have in-house attorneys like some of these larger developers have. Those guys might have whole teams of attorneys coming in to dissect the Code Book, figuring out what they can and can’t do.

BRN: Well, Ray, what is your view of what a town commissioner does or is supposed to do? What is the board’s role in municipal government?

RP: In may be different in larger cities, but in Blowing Rock the commissioners are charged with making policy and approving the budget. We do not go out on a day-to-day basis and tell employees what to do. They work for the Town Manager. Town Council oversees the development of overall policies and if there are problems, suggest ways to alleviate those problems. Commissioners also need to be forward-thinking to help prevent future problems or conflicts. If town ordinances or the land use code needs to be changed, the commissioners has responsibility for that, too.

BRN: As someone who has been on the Town Council as a commissioner before, you have some special insights. Talk a little bit about a Council’s tendency sometimes to get too far into the proverbial weeds of issues and how you prevent that from happening.

RP: It is hard to prevent, but it is manageable. You can go month after month and nobody gets very far into the weeds, then all of a sudden one of the commissioners will get into the weeds because they haven’t asked the right questions before they get into the actual Town Council meeting. If you have something about an issue that you are unsure about, but really feel you need to know, go to the department manager or town manager and ask those questions. The public Town Council meeting isn’t the place to show your lack of preparedness. It can be explained at the meeting, but you are not dragging it out all night long. Get a simple explanation. You aren’t debating it. You need to know before you get there. I think some of that (lack of preparation) is what causes some commissioners to get in the weeds of various issues.

BRN: What are the major challenges or opportunities that you see the town facing now?

RP: As usual, development continues to be a big one. Development seems to go in phases, but here lately we have had a number of projects: the Cornish Inn, Main & Pine St., Chestnut Hill, Rainey Lodge. That is quite a bit in a short period of time for a town our size. Managing development is one of the main things that Town Council has to do, but it needs to managed carefully and fairly. You can’t just tell one person that can and the next they can’t. You have to be fair in your judgment. To the public as well as the developer, you have to explain to the best of your ability what the law says.  When I was on Council before, some people asked, “Why can’t you just tell them ‘no’?”  You can’t do that. We are governed by laws. You have to explain to people that sometimes you may not like a particular project, but if it satisfies all aspects of the Land Use Code, our ‘lawbook’, then you have to approve the project.

BRN: Sometimes, it seems that some people forget that a Town Code or a Land Use Code even exist?

RP: Sometime I think they do. Those code books can be both a restrictive document as well as an enabling document. And it can be restrictive not just on the applicant, but also on the Commissioners, too. The ordinances go both ways. They are there to protect the applicant, too, because he has property rights as well.

BRN: You have been here longer than I have, but through the years how often has the Town been sued or close to being sued because of a decision that was made on a development?

RP: I don’t know an exact number. I do know there was a decision made years ago about some condos. I think it was when J.B. (Lawrence) was on Council, before he was Mayor. But they voted against the condo development and then the Town got sued and lost. J.B. told that story to me once. He said that they all thought they could tell the developer ‘no’ but it was taken to court and the Town lost because the project was within code. I’m not sure of any others that came close, but Rainey Lodge might have been one if it had been denied. From the looks of all the lawyers that came to the meetings, the developer might have been prepared for that since the project met all the requirements of the land use code. If he wasn’t prepared for that eventuality, I don’t think there would have been two lawyers there drawing out a meeting for three months.

BRN: Beyond the budget and beyond development, what are other challenges or opportunities that the town faces?

RP: Short-term rentals is a hot button issue. Every state in the country that has resort towns, it is an issue that has bubbled up to the surface. One state in particular passed a law that told towns they had no say in regulating what people could do with their homes in terms of vacation rentals and length of stay.

BRN: You are talking about Arizona.

RP: Yes. Arizona. It has really upset some people in Arizona. We are hoping it doesn’t happen here, in North Carolina, but as you know it has been brought up. It will probably be addressed in the next session of the General Assembly, in January, I guess as a continuation of the session we are currently in. If that passes, towns will have no say. People need to be prepared to write their representatives and make their voices heard, whichever way they feel about the issue.

Me, personally, I live in short-term rentals…this motel. We live here. But if I were to retire and move to a neighborhood, I don’t think I would care for it right next to me. I understand how some people might want to short-term rent their home, but I don’t know that I would want it next to me. I have heard horror stories. I have heard good stories, too. People who don’t even know that their neighboring house is being rented out for a weekend or a few nights. But I have heard horror stories.

BRN: Well, to play devil’s advocate, there are horror stories in all neighborhoods among permanent residents, too, from trash and noise complaints to murders and robberies.

RP: Sure. Long-term renters could be an issue as well. I just don’t think I would be comfortable having a short-term rental next to me in a quieter neighborhood setting.

BRN: What is your feeling about the Town’s role in economic development?

RP: A town the size of Blowing Rock, the role has to be small. A Town Council should not get in the way of development, help facilitate development where they can, keep things moving, but in terms of having an entire department focused on economic development, Blowing Rock is not large enough for that, just because of the cost. If we wanted to participate in a regional economic development effort, say covering three counties, that might be a little more palatable. But if you get somebody that knows what they are doing, they are usually pretty expensive. I would be more inclined to look at sharing that cost, that bearing the cost of a dedicated effort.

Essentially the same thing might be sharing the cost of an economic development officer with another town of similar size and scope, such as another resort town like Beech Mountain. Boone wouldn’t necessarily be a good comparable for us.

BRN: What direction do you think economic development should go beyond just tourism?

RP: That has always been a tough question. We have talked about it, for years, about a direction to bring other than tourism and it is very difficult to find an answer for the economy other than tourism and the second home or seasonal market.

I’ve heard talk about trying to bring millennials, but of course that in itself is a broad subject. It is very difficult because most millennials want to be in the city, in an urban environment. Really, it is just like me when I was young. You want what a city has to offer in terms of work, play and lifestyle. There are some, and several have worked for us here at Blowing Rock Inn, that would like to stay in this area, but the opportunities just aren’t there for them. It’s about money. They would like to stay because this is their kind of environment, but living expenses vs. job opportunities just don’t match up. If I had the magic answer to that, I would not be running for Town Council. I’d be doing something with my magic bullet for making money in the High Country outside of tourism. Maybe I would be the economic development counselor!

BRN: Related to infrastructure, obviously the Town has a major responsibility. A lot of the Town’s investments since the Community Improvement Bonds have really been catching up on previously deferred maintenance.  Previous town councils kicked the proverbial can down the road, either because they didn’t have the money or they had other priorities. What do you should be the priorities in addressing or even expanding infrastructure improvements.

RP: Expanding, or fixing what we have?

BRN: And/or both.

RP: Right now, unless it is a dire need, expansion is out of the question. Most people have water and sewer. Some have sewer but not water, others have water but not sewer. But unless they have a failing system and absolutely need it, I think we have to hold off on expanding those services. We still have more issues in Town like we have had on Sunset. We had more breaks on Sunset than anywhere else.

BRN: With the new streetscape and other infrastructure investments being made now on Sunset, how many of those problems will remain?

RP: Well, all of the problems with water and sewer will be remedied on Sunset. Every connection, sewer, water, everything is being replaced. Every detail. Sunset will be in good shape for years to come.

But we have stuff around Town that is 70 and 80 years old and on the verge of major failure. It is inevitable. It is not just Blowing Rock, but all across the nation small towns like ours are dealing with the same infrastructure problems. The systems were put in so long ago and have lasted so long…you just keep thinking, “Oh, it will last one more year, two more years. We don’t have to fix it NOW.” Then all of a sudden it has been 80 years and we HAVE to fix it. Some of the water lines may be 4-inch lines that only have two inches or less of space in them because of the corrosion.

BRN: What do think of the process by which Town Council addressed the Sunset Drive needs? I think you were on the Board when the whole thing got started.

RP: Yep. That is when the process was begun.  We had done Main St. and that work was performed by McGill & Associates. We had some folks come to us and they wanted to do something better for Sunset Dr.  They wanted a firm that was more of a design firm than an engineering firm.

Well, we should have been listening to the voices in the back of our heads because it got completely out of control. We hired a design firm that came with these elaborate plans, but we could never afford it. It was pretty, but we could not afford it.

BRN: It sounds like somewhere in the planning process somebody forgot to tell the design firm what your budget was.

RP: I think we must have. I am not even sure how we lost that communication, but somehow it was lost. I admit that I was sitting right there with all of the other commissioners and that question just scooted right by us.

What they are doing now…and I made this comment in a meeting, that the five of us (Council members) could have gotten together at the top of Sunset (at Main Street) and walked down it – and we could have come up with the same thing.

They have a plan now, though. There are a few things I don’t like about it, but it is too late now.

BRN: You mean like one- or two-feet wide grass strips instead of papers along the sidewalks?

RP: Yeah. They aren’t putting the pavers down and they will have the same problem that Main Street had. It will end up being a bunch of dead grass and mud that will eventually be replaced with pavers. You might as well put the pavers down in the first place and be done with it. And I have told them that.

BRN: As have a number of other people. But sometimes with certain personalities those observations fall on deaf ears.

RP: Yeah.

BRN: At the Board retreat last year, I think it was, the Board decided that they had to get started on Sunset Dr., that they could not kick the can down the road any longer. They trashed the idea of a gateway, as well as the idea of undergrounding utilities because of cost considerations. They got rid of the grandiose ideas and opted for something much more affordable. They went forward with what we are seeing now, although the cost had ballooned up from the first cost estimates back when it was first considered, some four years ago.

I now hear that the TDA, the Chamber of Commerce, and Valley Blvd. are aiming to bring back the gateway idea with private funding.

RP: Don’t take this as gospel, but I think the TDA has set aside a little bit of money to help with the gateway idea. I think the Village Foundation is the driving force, along with the Chamber for some things. I can’t tell you what they are doing because my impression is that the plans change about once a week…They brought some plans to BRAAC (Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Commission), but within two weeks’ time those plans had already change. They are doing something, though. It is just constantly changing. Personally, I don’t see any point in tearing something up that is already there and brand new, like the sidewalk, curb and gutter work across the river. That is just wasting money.

BRN: The old fire station is viewed by many folks in town as a colossal waste of prime downtown space in using it for storage of lawnmowers and material for the landscaping department.

RP: I have heard those comments for seven years now.

BRN: We aren’t taking one side or the other, but what is your view on that issue?

RP: It serves a good purpose right now. If we are to repurpose it for a cultural center or theatre, which is what has been proposed, then we (the Town) would have to find another place for the stuff that is being housed in there now. Most likely we would have to buy a piece of land because we don’t own any places now, and then build something. It is used for far more than lawnmower storage and those lawnmowers cost more than many cars, by the way. There is other equipment, too. Our landscape department is getting more and more put on them and they will probably have to have even more equipment because Valley Blvd.’s landscaping and maintenance is going to be turned over to the town by the DOT at some point, within two years. That is going to be a lot of work and that equipment will need a place to be stored. The new Public Works building and campus is full.

BRN: What are your thoughts on undergrounding the utilities on Main Street, or relocating them?

RP: I would be more inclined to relocate them. Burying them would be very expensive and extremely disruptive for downtown businesses.  Moving them might be an option, maybe to the east side of Main Street, behind the buildings.

BRN: Scientists around the world are nearly unanimous in saying that climate change is real and a threat to mankind in the not-too-distant future. A lot of the problems have been attributed to the burning of fossil fuels to generate energy. As a consequence, “sustainability” has become a major socioeconomic theme. Appalachian State even has whole academic disciplines built around the sustainability theme. A couple of years ago, the Town gave lip service to a pledge for clean energy in passing a resolution advanced by a group of App State professors. What could or should the Town of Blowing Rock do to put some meat behind that pledge, those resolutions?

RP: We should lead by example. It should go beyond simple conservation measures and include installation of solar panels, for example. Wind turbines are not a good choice because the wind swirls up here in so many different directions and at unpredictable rates, reaching even violent speeds. Right here at Blowing Rock Inn, you can stand and look at our flagpole and see the flag flying in every direction within minutes, if not seconds.

But solar? We are considering solar for this property. The costs are coming down and the projected return on investment is increasing.

BRN: Right now, the Town ordinances allow you to put solar panels on commercial buildings up to 10% or 20% of your rooftop, depending on the roof angles and styles.

RP: At one point in time, you couldn’t put solar panels up there at all.

BRN: In this day and age, why not 100%?

RP: That is a good question. Previously it was considered aesthetically unattractive. Today I doubt people would even notice.

BRN: And if they do notice them, they are probably envious.

RP: And solar panels now are very unobtrusive. Tesla is even working on solar tiles that look just like traditional shingles.

When I was on the Planning Board we talked about wind energy, solar energy and such, technologies that were coming. That was only eight years ago. There were people who were very upset that we were even talking about it. They were saying, “No, we don’t want that in our town.” They were adamant in saying that it looks bad.

BRN: Do you think those people have the same attitude today?

RP: I hope not. Times have changed and the technology has gotten much better and less obtrusive. If each little building in Town would cut down on its usage of energy from fossil fuels, we could cut down on pollution a lot. And in the long run each of us would save money. And those solar shingles that Tesla is working on? Those are groundbreaking.

Storage is a problem, but those technologies are coming, too. Storage is one of the things holding us back here right now, too. Our customers leave their air conditioners on of course during the day, when the solar panels are doing their thing in converting sunlight to electricity, but mostly they are out doing things. Where they really use energy is at night, when they have the lights on and are watching TV and such, occupying the rooms. So we need to store or capture a lot of that electricity produced during the day for their usage at night.

BRN: Are electric or hybrid vehicles practical for the Town to use?

RP: Right now, probably not, but there are some coming down the line by different manufacturers. We don’t really have any town employees who get a town vehicle where electric, especially, would be beneficial. Maybe hybrid. But I know three manufacturers right now that are coming out with pickups that have high load and towing capacities and they are all-electric.

If we had a solar array on the Public Works building with energy storage capability, and if we had some all-electric trucks, then they could charge overnight from the stored energy. Some towns are using all-electric cars for employees like building inspectors, because all they really need is a way to get to a job site. We might do something similar with our Planning Director, but the Town Manager buys his own vehicle and we reimburse him for mileage for official business.

BRN: Let’s turn to Valley Blvd. I guess the burning, ultimate question is whether there is a real benefit to spending $20,000 for a consultant and the forming of this ad hoc committee?

RP: I will go to the little meeting they are having this month. The Town has already hired Benchmark Consulting for this $20,000.  Now Benchmark oversaw the development of our 2014 Comprehensive Plan. It is time for a 5-year update. I think the Comprehensive Plan covers what we want pretty well and I think our Town Code is pretty substantial and covers Valley Blvd. pretty well.

You form a committee and hire a consultant who say, “We want this, this, and this.” Well, unless you get the property owners to agree to that, it doesn’t work. And if you put in such restrictive ordinances in the Land Use Code that he or she can do nothing, then you are just inviting a lawsuit.

I really don’t know that this ad hoc committee is going to be a difference-maker. The tasking should have gone through the Planning Board and the already scheduled update to the Comprehensive Plan. But I will go to their meetings. I will be curious to see what is said.

BRN: Well, thank-you for your time and insights. To wind this up, how about summarizing what you feel are your qualifications for serving as a member of the Board of Commissioners.

RP: Well, my experience on the Planning Board gave me a good education in knowing how the Town works. Four years on the Planning Board and then four years on Town Council as a Commissioner before. I have that experience. Plus, I read a lot. I do a lot of research, whether reading and understanding Town Code and the Land Use Code, or reading topical essays from the School of Government. I think being a business owner helps, as well. We have a payroll. We have to budget our expenses to match our revenue. Running a government is not exactly like running a business, but there are aspect that are the same. What are you spending? What kind of returns are you getting from those expenditures or investments? I have been there before.

By the way, thanks for doing this. The ability to talk about these things more comprehensively is more valuable to voters than the soundbites they get at a one- or two-hour forum event.

BRN: Well, thank YOU for your willingness to spend the time with us!

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