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One, Two Punch
David and Betty Huskins make a powerful team
in Raleigh for their beloved mountain counties

By Kevin Brafford

Betty Huskins prefers eating at the stylish Village Tavern in historic Reynolda Village near downtown Winston-Salem. David Huskins prefers Dockside Seafood, a no frills joint in neighboring Clemmons.

Generally, it’s not unusual for a wife and husband to like different restaurants as their favorite places to dine. Yet in this instance there is, because the Huskinses call the tiny mountain community of Linville Falls their home.

When business calls the Huskins, though, it frequently requires them to make the long trip from the mountains to Raleigh. “There’s rarely a week that goes by,” says Betty, “when one or both of us doesn’t go to Raleigh. We even used to keep an apartment there.”

“From our driveway to the parking deck across from the Legislative Building,” says David, “it’s 227 miles.”

That building might as well serve as a satellite office for both David and Betty Huskins. Together they run Ridgetop Associates, a management and governmental affairs consulting firm that dates to 1985. Their hands are in any number of other arenas as well — in April, in fact, Betty accepted the position of vice president of public affairs and corporate development for AdvantageWest, the regional economic development partnership that represents 23 western counties in the state.

To be movers and shakers in Linville Falls might not say a whole lot. But to be movers and shakers in Raleigh while living in Linville Falls, well, that’s another story.

“We have some rules of thumb that we try to adhere to when we’re going to Raleigh,” says David. “First, we want to leave in the morning no later than 5:45.”

“And,” adds Betty, “if we don’t leave to come back home by 4:30, we’ll stay until 6:30 or 7.”

The strategic planning is all in the name of traffic on Interstate 40, be it gridlock in the Triad or the Triangle. “The big question every time,” says Betty, “is can we make it through Greensboro?”

Unfold a map of North Carolina and first locate Winston-Salem. Next look to the east and pinpoint Raleigh. Easy enough, right? Now look back across the state, west of Winston-Salem and try to put your finger on Linville Falls.

Here’s a hint: It’s not too far from Marion and just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Linville Falls — not to be confused with the nearby town of Linville — boasts an intersection, a closet-sized post office, a gas station where you can actually get a flat tire changed, a nice restaurant and a quiet, comfortable lodge. The latter two help keep David and Betty right where they are, because they own the Linville Falls Lodge and its restaurant, Spear’s BBQ & Grill.

They’re mountain folks, through and through. He was born in Marion and she in Spruce Pine (a little more than five months apart in 1949) and you wonder how it took them 30 years to meet. Maybe it’s because he grew up in Charlotte, where he lived with his mother after his parents divorced. Still, he spent long stretches of summers traveling these out-of-the-way two-lane roads visiting his father and grandparents.

But their paths didn’t cross until 1979, five years after David had purchased a decaying seasonal lodge from his father and all but declared himself a bachelor for life.

“I spent my time between here and Spruce Pine,” says David, who held a couple of positions at Mayland Community College from 1974-79. “I hired a staff in the summer and we worked on this place, getting it in shape.

“I was pretty much of a confirmed bachelor. When I got to be 30, all of my friends were married and had children or had been married and were divorced. I thought that if I didn’t find anybody in the next two years, the plan was that I’d just wait until I was 40 or so and work on developing my career.”

Betty Queen interrupted the plan. She had just been hired to head Mitchell County’s first economic development commission and was known for having a broad range of talents, including a keen eye for art and design.

It just so happens that David needed her services. “I knew nothing about putting together a brochure, and a guy told me that I should go down and see Betty Queen. ‘You’re a lot like her,’ he said. I asked him what he meant and he said, ‘Well, she’s kind of unconventional in that she wants to do everything different from the way everybody wants her to.’ Of course, I had the same reputation.”

They clashed about as much as they clicked, which ended up being a good thing. “I have to be careful how I phrase this,” Betty says. “My first impression of David was that he was cocky and arrogant. I saw him as a challenge — a very interesting and exciting challenge.”

As fate would have it, David was asked to become Mitchell County’s first county manager a few months later. He and Betty were still just casual work acquaintances at the time, but he expected that to change — and he expected to be her boss.

It didn’t happen that way. “The county had a population of about 13,000 at the time and I was excited because I’m thinking that I’m going to get to run everything. But she was the only one that I couldn’t control — she was this independent department down here with an autonomous board.

“The county manager ought to be able to tell the economic developer what to do, but it wasn’t that way.”

A good thing, as it turned out, because their independence helped cultivate a personal relationship that began in earnest on a cold mountain Saturday night in January of 1980.

“I got a phone call one Friday afternoon out of the clear blue sky and he said, ‘I thought maybe we might we might go to the basketball game at Appalachian State.’ I about died laughing, but he was serious and said that we’d take my two sons (from a previous marriage, ages 11 and 9 at the time).”

“We went to the game,” says David, “and had a blast, then went and had pizza afterward. It was a great day.”

They dated heavily for about six months. Professional had become personal, and David was glad that he wasn’t her boss. On Dec. 7, 1980, they got married.

“My kids fell in love with him before I did,” says Betty. “They knew what they were doing all along.”

Betty stayed as director of the EDC until the following year and David remained county manager until 1985. He had opened a small family restaurant adjacent to the lodge in 1978 and both saw the two businesses as a labor of love — with an emphasis on labor.

“This was home for us and we didn’t think that was going to change,” Betty says. “When David left the county, for one year we focused on this business. We took all of our money, all of our retirement and dumped it into expanding this restaurant. It was pretty scary. The night before it opened, I panicked, wondering what would happen if it didn’t work.”

Not to worry. David, who has degrees or certificates of educational achievement from no less than five state universities, had done his homework. “When we decided to expand the restaurant, we figured out that we wanted to focus on barbecue. I did a lot of research on barbecue and found out that if you wanted a successful barbecue restaurant, it had to carry somebody’s name.”

That somebody’s name was Spear, the middle name of David and Betty’s youngest son, John, a freshman at Louisburg College, and also the name of David’s grandfather. The restaurant, which operates daily during high season and on weekends from November through mid-April, maintains a family flair — the middle son, 32-year-old Eric Queen, is its manager (the oldest son, 34-year-old Marc Queen, is the head golf professional at Foxwoods Country Club in Harrisonburg, Va., and has one son with another baby on the way).

“I can’t imagine there being a better place to grow up,” says Eric. “I was 10 years old when David married my mom — he likes to say that he married us — so I came straight into the business world. I remember having to get toilet paper for somebody in the middle of the night. But I wouldn’t trade it all for anything.”

Later in 1985, David and Betty founded Ridgetop, in part because the latter was tired of the former offering too much free advice. “David is bad about giving away his services,” Betty says. “It got to the point where I thought it was crazy, so I said we should just start our own company.”

Their client list numbers well more than a dozen and a mention of their names or appearances at the Legislative Building brings an immediate acknowledgement.

“It’s nice to walk into that building and the legislators know you by name,” says David. “Being political animals, we figured out early on that if you weren’t at the table when decisions were made, then you had no way of helping to influence those decisions. That’s important for our people.”

The reference is to the residents of Western North Carolina. “We recognized that we’re in the mountains, in a small population that sometimes feels disconnected by geography. So we feel the need to be at the table, to built alliances and partnerships with legislators. To be frank, sometimes our own legislators up here, while good people, have not exactly been power brokers.

“Sometimes the state has a one-size-fits-all mentality, and we work to broaden that public policy.”

Hence the weekly roadtrips to Raleigh. For every mile that’s been logged, for every legislative concern that’s been doggedly tackled, David and Betty have garnered that much more respect.

“I don’t know how they maintain the schedules that they do,” says Phil Kirk, who, as president of NCCBI and chairman of the State Board of Education, can speak to a busy schedule. “They are tireless workers and a unique and amazing team. They are special, special people who care greatly about where they live.”

They’re proud of their many accomplishments, but perhaps none more so than the development of Smoky Mountain Host, a public/private partnership for regional tourism development, in the early 1990s. Betty worked as an economic development consultant to Macon County, and she and David helped recruit the first two manufacturing industries to the county’s industrial park.

Tourism development for the region, and in particular a visitor’s center, however, required state money, and they lobbied hard for a meeting with then-Gov. Jim Martin. The proposal was to build the center on Highway 441 south of Franklin with public money that then would be operated privately.

The governor embraced the idea and Macon County soon had the $2.1 million necessary to build its visitor’s center. Today, Smoky Mountain Host has about 300 members and is considered a model for public/private partnership in the tourism industry.

“One of the things that we really believe in is that things work best when the government and the private sector are in partnership with each other,” David says. “Gov. Martin really liked that concept. He said, ‘We’ll build that visitor’s center and y’all will have to take it from there.’ That’s all we wanted.”

Six additional visitor’s centers in outlying regions of the state have been constructed since, David says, although not all have been public/private partnerships. “I think it would be safe to say that Smoky Mountain Host has played a huge leadership role in the tourism industry,” Betty says. “It has forged new legislation and really has been the lobbyist for the industry.”

Each also has been instrumental in the building of AdvantageWest. “By building alliances with legislators,” says David, “we were able to be at the table when the regional economic development partnerships were being formed.”

The idea was to develop the three regions of the state that were the most economically distressed — the west, southeast and northeast. But initially the western counties in the plan extended only to the immediate counties surrounding Buncombe — the Asheville area. That didn’t sit well with David.

“I told them that this needed to be bigger and that it needed to include tourism,” he says. “Well, they only wanted to tax the hotels and motels — that was it. I felt like that if they didn’t have a tourism voice at the table, then tourism would be shoved outside — and that the partnership would only be for industrial development.

“So we got tourism involved and we’ve benefited greatly since. At Advantage- West, I’d say that we’ve supported tourism bigger than any region of the state.” Betty continues to advance tourism economic development at Advantage- West in her role today. “It’s been a gratifying and rewarding experience,” she says. “I’m working with the best of people.”

And David continues to do what he can to promote the region as well. As a member of NCCBI’s Executive Committee and Board of Directors, he was asked to bring in at least two new members. He’s brought in 15 thus far.

Eric Queen’s proud of that fact, although he wishes his folks would slow down and take more time for themselves. “They stay on the go seven days a week, year-round,” he says. “But that’s who they are. They’ve always put other people first.” 

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