By David Rogers. August 24, 2015. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Tourism-related business activity has clawed its way back to pre-recession highs, Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority Executive Director told an estimated 125 business owners and residents at Blowing Rock Art & History Museum (BRAHM) last week at the annual “State of the Town” event hosted by Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce.
COVER IMAGE: Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Tracy Brown reported that occupancy taxes had recovered pre-recession levels. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
That was one of the key takeaways from a series of presentations that offered a unified message: “All systems are GO.”
Welcomed by BRAHM business manager and Chamber board member David Harwood, the standing room only crowd estimated at 125 residents and business owners heard about the activities of the Chamber of Commerce by Executive Director Charles Hardin; an update from NCDOT resident engineer Doug Eller on the progress and plans for the U.S. 321 widening project;a report on various town projects from Town Manager Scott Fogleman; a year’s accounting of the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority (TDA) offered by Executive Director Tracy Brown; and an update on the new Foley Center at Chestnut Ridge post-acute care center and related medical facilities being constructed on the northern outskirts of Blowing Rock by Appalachian Regional Healthcare System.
Chamber of Commerce Report
Mr. Hardin disclosed that a major project of the Chamber currently is the development of a 5-year Strategic Plan which, he noted, “…will parallel with the Town’s 10-Year Comprehensive Plan.” He credited Chamber President Cathy Robbins (Tweetsie Railroad) with leading the strategic plan’s development and shared that it is expected to be completed sometime in October.
Hardin also reported that the Chamber is currently developing a new website that should materialize “…around the time we introduce the new strategic plan. It will be a ‘lifestyle’ based website featuring Blowing Rock as a great place to live and work, in addition to the other website shared with the TDA. This will be a sister site and will be really nice.”
We had over 4,000 people at Symphony by the Lake, which is a record crowd.
Now Executive Director of the Chamber for more than a decade, Hardin outlined various sub-groups operating within the Chamber, including the Don Hubble-led Economic Development Committee (EDC). He listed several current projects supported by the EDC and the Chamber, including the Middle Fork Greenway, Chestnut Ridge, the Gateway Project, town signage once the U.S. 321 widening project is finished, extending hours of store operation in the retail zone through October, and new business recruiting.
The Chamber hosts a number of events each year, Hardin listed, including Symphony by the Lake, Art in the Park, Music Moves Mountains, Winterfest and the Blue Ridge Wine & Food Festival, which he reminded folks has been re-branded as SAVOR Blowing Rock.
He also observed that since 2015 is a municipal election year, the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Challenge Alumni will again host a “Candidates Forum” at 5:00 pm, October 19th, at Blowing Rock School Auditorium. “You’ll have an opportunity to hear the candidates’ positions on various issues,” Hardin stated, adding, “These will be only for Mayor and the two seats on the Board of Commissioners”
Hardin reminded the attendees about the Thursday afternoon “Farmers Market” that runs through October. “This is smaller than the one in Boone,” he noted, “but we have a smaller town and our Farmers Market is more specialized. You won’t find oranges and watermelon, which aren’t grown around here. But what you will find is some outstanding local produce and products, from locally grown or produced eggs and milk and tomatoes. Please come out on Thursday afternoons and support this service to our community.”
Other activities or events mentioned by Hardin included Concerts in the Park, Shred Day (in partnership with First Citizens Bank), various ribbon cuttings for new businesses, volunteer appreciation events, and “Restaurant Week” in June.
“We had over 4,000 people at Symphony by the Lake last month, which is a record crowd,” Hardin noted, “but the one big special event of which I want you to take special not is SAVOR Blowing Rock…which replaces the Blue Ridge Wine & Food Festival.”
Suggesting that demographic trends are pointing the Chamber’s leadership to alter its direction with a broader range of “taste” sensations — after hosting the Wine & Food Festival for 10 years — Hardin shared, “Wine is going out of favor in some ways. Craft beer is red hot and right behind that you are going to find distilled spirits and local foods…SAVOR Blowing Rock can (refer to) anything.” Hardin added, to chuckles from the crowd, “Now if distilled spirits and beer fall out of favor and they find something else for us…(laughter)…I don’t want to speculate, but we can do a festival down the road with just about anything and the SAVOR Blowing Rock moniker will cover it.”
In closing his remarks, Mr. Hardin recounted that the Chamber started a non-profit foundation in 2012, and noted that (tentatively) it will be re-branded as “The Foundation for Blowing Rock,” with additional information forthcoming. “The mission,” Hardin said, “is for business, education, economic development and reducing the burdens of government.” He noted that past president of the Chamber, John Aldridge, serve as the foundation board’s organizing chairman.
Hardin added that the Chamber is expanding the Foundation’s wintertime “white lights” project. “There is a plan underway to meet with a consultant to design a spectacular winter lighting display for downtown…This is one way to add some sparkle to the Town in the winter.
“This foundation will be the fundraising arm to try to get some of the projects done (that are in the Town comprehensive plan and the Chamber’s strategic plan),” Hardin concluded. “We’re real excited about this because the Town budget really doesn’t have sufficient funds to do some of these projects. We want to raise that money privately.”
U.S. 321 Widening Project
The NCDOT’s Mr. Eller gave a brief prepared report on the U.S. 321 widening project. “To date,” Mr. Eller observed, “we have moved approximately 325,000 cubic yards of rock and earth material, installed more than three miles of storm drain system, installed over three and a half miles of water and sewer lines, and place over 26,000 tons of asphalt. We have gotten a lot accomplished, even though it seems like it has taken awhile. We’ve been doing a lot of work underground that is in preparation for what can be seen above ground.
We’ve been doing a lot of work underground in preparation for what can be seen above ground.
“…Some of what you will see over the next several weeks before winter sets in,” Eller continued, “you’ll see a lot of work on the duct-based system, which is a $3.6 million component of this project. It will allow a majority of the overhead utilities to go underground…you’ll also see a lot of retaining walls on the left hand side begin to be installed. There are 40 retaining walls on this project, of varying types…”
Mr. Eller’s prepared remarks were relatively brief, but his time in front of the audience was the longest portion of the evening’ agenda as he was bombarded with questions, complaints and concerns from several people in the audience. The issues ranged from the signal light below Food Lion occurring on a downgrade at Main Street’s northern intersection with Valley Blvd., to the lack of a signal light in the plans for Main Street’s new four-way intersection with Valley Blvd. (with Skyline Drive coming into the intersection opposite of Main St.), to the challenges of visitors in knowing which way to go when trying to enter businesses along the construction route…and to the massive backups that are occurring, especially at the highway’s north intersection with Main St. — and we haven’t even gotten into leaf season or App State football game weekends.
To a chorus of laughter, the veteran resident engineer quipped, “I usually keep my (prepared remarks) brief because I know that (answering the questions) is usually the most important thing!”
Mayor J.B. Lawrence opened his remarks by observing the standing-room-only audience and noting, “I think we can look around this room and see the state of our town: we have a lot of people who love it or they would not be here!
“I’m personally going to nail down his furniture so he can never leave!
“I’d also like to say,” hizzoner noted, “that you are really blessed to have a wonderful town staff, from (Town Manager) Scott Fogleman all the way down to the people who work on the streets and who plow the snow in the wintertime…and who cannot notice the great job that Chris Pate has done with the landscaping around town.”
After acknowledging the other members of the Town Council, Mr. Lawrence concluded, “We live in the greatest place on Earth…and we have the greatest Town Manager of any resort town in America…I am going to his house and personally nail down his furniture so he can never leave!” (laughter)
Town Manager Scott Fogleman
After that spirited introduction, Mr. Fogleman offered an animated presentation of Town facts and figures, but not before acknowledging the Town’s “…great relationship with the Chamber of Commerce. They help out with so many things that help keep our Town vibrant.”
Mr. Fogleman encouraged the audience members to contact their State House representatives and North Carolina Senator Dan Soucek and tell them, “We want to help preserve local government revenue options.” Fogleman’s suggestion comes in the face of legislation currently working its way through the General Assembly that would modify how North Carolina’s sales tax would be re-distributed to the various counties and, by extension, those counties’ respective municipalities. The modifications would include taking a greater portion of sales tax revenue away from the cities and towns where the taxes are generated and instead more heavily weighting their distribution on a per capita basis. “The way it looks right now,” Fogleman explained, “we will lose about 4% of our revenue and they will be redistributed elsewhere in the state.”
About 77% of voters, overall, gave Blowing Rock this bonding capacity.
Soon to complete his second full year at the helm of Town staff, Mr. Fogleman pointed to the 10-year Comprehensive Plan adopted by the Commissioners earlier this year. “It is a guiding document for what we do on a daily basis. It has specific subject areas that provide the framework for what we do and gives us a roadmap to help maintain the community character that we so much love, even in the face of future development.”
Fogleman recounted for the audience the goals and objectives of the general referendum bonds that were passed by voters last November and outlined how those funds would be used and paid back. “Overall, about 77% of voters approved giving Blowing Rock this bonding capacity to help pay for the (water, sewer, streets, and parks) infrastructure initiatives.
“…If voters had not approved these bonds, we would not have been able to move forward with the volume of projects that we are (undertaking) in the near future,” Fogleman added.
He revisited Town accomplishments that included private-public partnerships, such as the new Rotary Gazebo and the the American Legion Building Renovation.
Tourism Development Authority
Tracy Brown opened his remarks by noting, “The state of tourism in Blowing Rock is good…Things are good here. The last few years we have seen steady growth in our occupancy tax revenue and we are now past — above — pre-recession levels. We expect this trend to continue. We just closes our 2014-15 fiscal year and we were up 8.47%. Our June was up over 12% and that was without the Shriners coming into town this year!”
65% say business is improving or at record levels.
Mr. Brown acknowledged that periodically the TDA surveys local businesses about the health of their respective businesses. “About 65% of our businesses are reporting that their business is improving over last year or at record levels.”
Brown added, “Some $225 million in tourism dollars were spent in Watauga County in the last fiscal year. That is strong.”
The TDA executive director observed that because of the tourism-related taxes collected, “We each save, us property owners, $370 per year because of tourism that happens in our county.”
Mr. Brown further explained the organization and mission of the TDA, how it is funded, and discussed some of the marketing initiatives his agency has undertaken to promote tourism in Blowing Rock. He also identified some of the “earned” press recognition that Blowing Rock received over the past year.
The Foley Center at Chestnut Ridge
Rob Hudspeth, the Senior Vice President for System Advancement for Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, offered a brief rundown on the progress at the Chestnut Ridge project that has been given a lot of support not just by the Chamber of Commerce, but also by the Town Council and Town Staff.
“I’m here to talk about two topics,” Mr. Hudspeth suggested at the outset, “and two topics only. I want to talk about the Chestnut Ridge (post acute care facility) project, but I also want to talk with you about our (primary care) clinic.”
Hudspeth showed a series of photographic images of the development site’s progress, from the groundbreaking a year ago to what has become an expansive campus. “As you know, we are replacing Blowing Rock Hospital with a new facility comprised of 112 beds and 84,000 square feet. It is more than half way finished…We look to be open this time next summer.
This is an important part of our care continuum.
Noting that the new facility is not a hospital, Hudspeth explained, “This is a post acute care facility. This is a facility that will allow us a place to send patients who are not quite ready to go home, but they don’t need to be in the hospital. There will be a rehab focus. Whether you are 13 years old and break your leg skiing or had surgery and need some rehabilitative care — or if you are 113 years old, you might find yourself here, too, because there is a skilled nursing unit and a palliative care unit as well.”
Hudspeth added, “We needed a place to send patients who don’t really need to be in the hospital. That’s expensive (to the patients, to the third party payers, and to the healthcare system).”
In explaining the importance of the facility and its role in the healthcare system, Hudspeth reflected on a study of 10-days in the hospital for a heart failure patient vs. three days in the hospital and seven days at the Foley Center. He noted that while the 10 days at Watauga Medical Center might cost as much as $55,000, the alternative plan after the patient is stabilized at WMC then transferred to Chestnut Ridge would only be $18,000 to $19,000. “That’s big time cost savings to you (the patient). Believe it or not, is save us money — and the federal government likes it that we are being more efficient with healthcare expenditures.
“This facility is geared toward providing patients with care AFTER hospitalization,” Hudspeth concluded. “So it is very, very important to our care continuum.”
Turning to his discussion of the primary care clinic, Hudspeth shared, “I read newspaper articles the past couple of weeks about a new primary care clinic (on Valley Blvd.), and I just want to make sure that everyone here knows that we have a primary care clinic planned for this (Chestnut Ridge) facility. We have had that plan since the beginning of the project. So we will have doctors and nurse practitioners and allied healthcare professionals there, in this facility. The primary care clinic will be 6,725 square feet, with a pharmacy on the end of it. We will own it. As a patient, you will be in our system. If you need advanced care, you will more than likely be referred to one of our (other, specialty) facilities or clinics.”
In answer to a question about the clinic’s hours, Hudspeth stated, “This is not an urgent care facility, but a primary care clinic with extended hours. All of our Appalachian Regional Healthcare primary care clinics are patient-centered medical homes. So it will not feel like an urgent care (facility).”
In answer to a final question, Hudspeth noted that the pharmacy will be served by a third party contractor, Boone Drug.