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Community Profile


Watauga and Avery counties
find eco-tourism is the proper link between nature and prosperity 

By Ned Cline

Learn more: Hugh Morton, the Robbins brothers pioneered something beautiful
Northwest region basks in ASU's warm shadow 
Photos, above right: The Mile-High Swinging Bridge on Grandfather Mountain is one of the state's best-known landmarks. Right: Watauga Medical Center, with 900 employees, is the county's second-largest employer. Above: The Holmes Convocation Center at Appalachian State University is one of the largest such facilities in the western part of the state.

By Ned Cline

Dizzy Dean, the former major league pitcher whose fastball was smoother than his verbiage, used to brag a lot about his successful exploits on the playing field. Each tale was stretched a bit with each telling. When challenged about the veracity of his stories, Dean would say, “Well, it ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.”

Folks in the western North Carolina counties of Watauga and Avery sometimes tend to border on bragging when they talk about the varied wholesome assets that they offer residents, visitors and businesses. But the truth is, they can support their claims with facts. Like the Hall of Fame ballplayer, they say with a smile that it’s not bragging when you can produce proof, which they certainly can.

When area chamber of commerce officials boast that “every room has a view,” it’s more than a mere marketing slogan. With few exceptions, it’s a fact.

Stand on virtually any street corner or look through the window of any lodging place, and you will likely have a view that is, more often than not, postcard perfect.

Scenic beauty is the rule, not the exception. Of all the vestiges of scenic beauty in America, few can match the autumn or springtime view along stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway between Linville in Avery and Blowing Rock in Watauga. When economic developers ask prospective employers to take their business to higher ground, they mean it literally as well as figuratively. When they ask visitors or new residents to enjoy any season, they support the claim with amenities to match.

While much of North Carolina struggles with an economic downturn affecting major industries with staggering worker layoffs, Watauga County is rocking along with an unemployment rate of 1.8 percent, numbers that have held firm for 26 straight months. Avery’s unemployment is higher, but still two points under the state average.

Tourism has been the key to continued success. “Over the past few years, as manufacturing businesses have closed operations in this area, tourism has played an ever more important role in our economy,” says Judy Donaghy, executive director of High Country Host, the tourism promotion arm of the mountain region. “Counties that once looked upon tourism as a backup industry are now eagerly embracing it as a viable industry.

“We are now seeing an increase in the number of small businesses that cater to both tourists and second homeowners,” she adds. “Many of the people opening new businesses originally came here to visit, fell in love with the area, and returned to make it their home. This region has an appeal as the ‘real America’ that people are looking for today in terms of a safe, wholesome environment. I foresee a bright future for us.”

Balancing Progress, Preservation 

These two counties hard by the Tennessee border in the Blue Ridge Mountains are successfully balancing progress with preservation. Rather than runaway growth, the area has a more moderate systematic expansion that is building on the strengths of the past as a way to improve the future. The hills are very much alive with the sounds of a vitality and quality of life that is missing in communities dependent on smokestack industries in economic decline or lacking environmental security.

Tourism is the financial backbone of the two counties, and a strong backbone it is. In Watauga, the larger of the two counties with 312 square miles and Boone as its center, tourism is a $150 million annual industry that provides more than $41 million a year in salaries for 2,500 workers. Avery produces almost $73 million a year in tourism revenue that provides jobs for 1,300 workers with an annual payroll of $22 million.

Watauga, a Cherokee word meaning whispering waters, is home to Tweetsie Railroad, a family entertainment center for more than 40 years. Thousands of children — and their parents — have fond memories of visiting the site between Boone and Blowing Rock.

Avery is home to Grandfather Mountain, a location as well known and admired as any in the state. It is also home to four ski resorts, two of which (Beech Mountain and Seven Devils) have become incorporated towns. These resorts welcome visitors and residents by the thousands every year and keep the economy thriving. They are part of a series of uplifting venues created by a relatively small group of visionaries determined to maintain a healthy environment and economy. They have transformed the two counties into a Mecca for small businesses and tourism that enhance lifestyles and offer a willing hand of hospitality.

The thriving ski industry in the region evolved from a single casual comment some 40 years ago, but has turned into anything but casual. A small group of businessmen were watching the 1960 Olympics ski competition on TV when one of them said, “You know, we can do that here.” That comment, attributed to Wade Brown, a longtime Boone civic promoter who is now 93, was the beginning of something big as the ski industry clearly has become.

No county is totally recession proof, but Watauga and Avery come about as close as it gets in today’s economy, thanks to the tourism industry.

Add the assets already mentioned to the crisp spring times, cool summers, dazzling fall colors, and a skier’s winter paradise and the picture becomes clear on the appeal of the two-county region. Among the celebrities offering praise for the beauty and vitality of the area on a Chamber of Commerce video are former Sen. Robert Dole and current U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige. Cyclist Lance Armstrong liked the area enough to come to the counties for training.

Tax rates in the region have been kept enviously low (Watauga, 45 cents per $100 valuation; Boone, 39 cents; and Blowing Rock, 30 cents) primarily because of the second-home residences of affluent families. These luxurious homes have added significantly to local tax bases with few accompanying costs.

Multi-million dollars homes — carefully constructed to provide scenic views while preserving the natural beauty — dot the mountains in both counties, owned by older citizens who cost the counties little because they have no need for schools or even law enforcement. Most gated communities provide their own security forces. In addition to property taxes, these families support shops, restaurants and entertainment sites, as do their frequent guests. They also add to the diversity and culture of the counties. Seasonal residents own a third of the housing in the two counties, almost all of it upper end.

All of the amenities in the counties are within a two-hour drive of Asheville, Charlotte and Greensboro and little more than 50 miles from two major interstate highways in North Carolina and one in Tennessee. A recently four-laned Highway 421 and a scheduled upgrade of Highway 321 serve as feeder routes.

Days of Daniel Boone

History books suggest that the Watauga/Avery region was first explored by a Moravian bishop in search of “back country” for his colonists in the middle 1750s. These were the first white residents, although Cherokee Indians had hunted seasonally in the area in earlier years. Watauga, with a current population of 43,685, was formed in 1849, followed by creation of Boone, the county’s largest town, in 1872. The town was named for Daniel Boone, who explored the region not long after the Moravians came.

The present Avery County, population 17,500, was carved out of Watauga and Mitchell counties in 1911. It was named for Col. Weightstill Avery, a Revolutionary War hero.

The two counties remained what might be considered “back country” for decades, not easily accessible for visitors and offering little in economic incentives for permanent residents. The natural beauty was there, of course, but only the privileged few or the natives got to enjoy it.

That all began to change after Hugh Morton’s family bought what is now Grandfather Mountain and Grover Robbins Sr. began to see the need for others to see the scenery. From those early visionaries came much of what you see in the region today.

Morton’s maternal grandfather, Hugh MacRae of Wilmington, bought 16,000 acres of mountains in the late 1890s and founded Linville at the base of what is now Grandfather Mountain. The MacRae and Morton families held the land during the first half of this century, building only a few access roads. Hugh Morton inherited Grandfather in the early 1950s and began the systematic development. Other Morton family members own other parts of the original property.

Morton, a legendary photographer, is a living testament to successfully merging development and natural beauty and has an earned reputation as the state’s preeminent promoter of the region (and the entire state). Robbins produced three sons who accepted their father’s challenge to develop the two counties in the right way.

Morton’s mountain is comprised of 5,000 acres with 3,500 of those part of a nature conservancy that prohibits roads or structures. The top of the mountain is a wildlife preserve as well as one of the most scenic spots in the country. Below the peak lies Grandfather Golf & Country Club, dotted with beautiful homes and a championship-quality golf course whose values exceed $200 million.

Except for Grandfather and neighboring residential areas that add value and maintain natural beauty, Avery County is still strictly small town. The county has only six traffic lights, one of which was shot out twice by locals who felt the signals interfered with the natural flow of their vehicles.

As chairman of the Year of the Mountain a decade ago, Morton led the effort to create planning and zoning regulations for the region. Two of 10 counties in the region had no planning rules when he started. When he finished, all 10 had agreed to monitor growth and protect the environment. “All this helps make this a pretty appealing area,” Morton says in one of his classic understatements.

The Robbins brothers — Grover Jr., Harry and Spencer — have been instrumental in developing significant and lasting residential and entertainment properties. “My father was part of the region’s early development, including the preservation of Blowing Rock and creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Spencer Robbins says. “He was committed to protecting the inherent beauty of the land, and I grew up wanting to follow in his footsteps.”

The three brothers created Hound Ears Resort in the middle 1960s, one of the first upscale developments in the region. It was modeled after the renowned Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Moore County, which Spencer Robbins once managed. The brothers have since developed entertainment venues and ski slopes in Watauga and Avery counties and in Tennessee. Harry, now in ill health, and his son Chris operate Tweetsie Railroad, and Spencer has developed Elk River, a residential neighborhood and country club in Banner Elk that is a 1,250-acre enterprise with 300 top-of-the-line homes and a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. Grover Jr. is deceased.

Civic and governmental leaders in the two counties heap deserved praise on the works of Morton and the Robbins brothers, even as they wonder who will follow in the next generation. Plans, however, are forming for that. Morton’s grandson, Crae, this fall joined the family business, making him the fourth generation to be part of the mountain development. Harry Robbins’s son, Chris, is now general manager of Tweetsie, and Spencer Robbins has one son who designs golf courses and another son in construction.

“We’ll be fine,”’says Blowing Rock restaurant owner Charles Hardin, vice chairman of the town’s chamber of commerce board. “We are energetic and have a good relationship among our people, natives and summer residents.”

Others are equally optimistic. “I am proud of our tourism industry and our thriving economy,” says Chris Robbins. “We are primed for growth that will maintain our high quality of life. Other counties are coming here to see how we do things.”

“I can say only good things about this area,” adds Martha Guy, whose father founded Avery County Bank in Newland, Avery’s county seat, in 1913. “We have such good people and the new residents are an added blessing. They provide a source of culture and new revenue and really don’t need or expect anything in return. They have made a positive difference in our schools and healthcare facilities.”

Excellent Healthcare

In terms of health facilities in Avery, in fact, the new residents get most of the credit. Cannon-Sloop Hospital, a new $20 million facility, recently opened in Linville as part of a merger of two aging medical facilities. The new hospital was paid for with private funds, almost all from second-home residents of the county.

“We have a lot going for us,” says John Brubaker, president of High Country Bank. “When you have our good climate and add in the environment for families, this makes for a great place to live and work. We’ve been sheltered from the economic downturn. We are mostly a community of small businesses with some underemployed people, but they accept that for the pleasures of living here.”

“We have new roads, diversified summer residents, a university, so much to do and so many places to see and great seasons that all makes for a wonderful place,” notes insurance agent Linda Gilleland, who is a member of NCCBI’s Small Business Advisory Board. “We are also a center for a lot of spiritual happenings. These mountains and the serenity help bring it all together.”

Among the facilities headquartered here with a spiritual connection is Samaritan’s Purse, the worldwide relief effort led by Franklin Graham, son of North Carolina evangelist Billy Graham.

Blowing Rock Mayor J.B. Lawrence, another banker, calls his town warm. “I’m talking about the people, not the weather,” he says with a smile. “And we are exerting controls to keep the area wholesome.” The town has an ordinance that prohibits any storefront more than 35 feet high in the downtown. “The people who come here as new residents from elsewhere often have a good understanding for our needs,” Lawrence adds.

Most of these residents come here, in fact, for what is here and they want to maintain it. Blowing Rock has a permanent population of about 1,500, but that figure climbs to 5,000 in the summers and some summer weekend totals double that. 

Both counties are adding people and businesses, albeit slowly. “Our job growth is often in the area of five or 10 workers,” says Boone Chamber President Michael Wagoner. “There are a lot of entrepreneurial ventures here, and we help existing businesses prosper as we add new ones. Businesses that are here are those that could go anywhere, but they chose to come here and that’s why it’s important to maintain what we have.”

Watauga’s population grew by 14 percent in the last decade while Avery’s grew by 16 percent. Most of the new residents are seasonal ones who have purchased or built more expensive homes.

One example of a local entrepreneur is John Cooper and his wife Faye, who came to Watauga County in 1980 as risk-takers. The couple purchased the then-closed Mast General Store, an historic landmark in picturesque, peaceful Valle Crucis. “Our banker told us he hoped we didn’t plan to make a living out of that store,” Cooper says. Well, they proved the banker wrong, and then some.

The Coopers, active in social and civic life of the community, still have the general store, but also have opened thriving clothing stores under the Mast name in downtown Boone, Asheville and Hendersonville. “Our business is good and we have had very positive experiences here,” Cooper explains. “We love the scenery, culture, climate and people. Travel and tourism is up, because since 9/11 people have been seeking out safe havens like this area.”

“For us, it’s basically all location,” says Boone Chamber Visitors Bureau director H.C. “Mac” Forehand III, himself a transplant from Virginia. “All the research says scenic mountain beauty is what people want, and that’s what he have in abundance along with four distinct tourist seasons. Our elevation (3,000 feet) makes it 10 to 15 degrees cooler than off the mountain. We haven’t exceeded 83 degrees for several years. When it’s cold in winter with ice in other areas, we just get snow.”

Average snowfall in the region is 41 inches; last year it was 48 inches. That’s manna to the ski industry.

The immediate Boone area has 1,200 motel rooms and Blowing Rock has two-thirds as many, plus multiple condo rental units and bed and breakfast lodging places scattered through the two counties. Most of the hotel rooms are less than five years old as new facilities are replacing aging ones and more are added. Boone opens a new hotel every other year. Lodging options in the two counties range from rustic to resort. Tourism revenue has grown each of the last 16 years, and more than half the Boone motel tax goes to promote tourism, with similar figures for Blowing Rock.

The region’s major employers are all tied to education, medicine, tourism or the service industry. The largest single manufacturing facility in Watauga is IRC/TT, an electronics company with some 300 workers. Only 8 percent of Watauga’s work force is in manufacturing, and most industrial plants employ 50 or fewer workers. Many of the local industrial or manufacturing plants, like Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff and Charleston Forge, are homegrown, and they’re prospering. The Boone industrial park of 45 acres is at full capacity with nine companies operating there.

In Avery County, the largest manufacturer is U.S. Textiles Corp. in Newland with 273 workers. No other manufacturing company employs more than 60 workers and some have as few as half a dozen workers.

Salaries in the two counties rank below the state average. Avery’s average weekly wage is $380, making it next to the lowest in the state. Watauga’s average weekly manufacturing wage is $446, placing it 67th among the state’s 100 counties.

School Systems Soar

Among the pride expressed by local leaders and townspeople involves public schools. In Watauga, each of the eight K-8 schools is classified by the state as a School of Excellence and the one high school is a School of Distinction. Watauga is one of five public school systems in North Carolina (out of 117) where every school reaches such high marks.

Average SAT scores in the county are 1,078, some 75 points higher than the state average. “We are extremely proud of the progress of Watauga schools,” says Watauga Schools Superintendent Bobbie Short. She calls the school rankings her “bragging rights,” adding that credit goes to faculty, parents and the community for continued interest in maintaining educational excellence. “We will continue to work together to provide the best educational opportunities possible for our students.”

Avery County schools also have an admirable record of achievement. Of the nine schools in Avery, eight scored in the excellence or distinctive category in state rankings last year. The high school missed that honor by a tenth of a point, but high school students in Avery raised their average SAT scores by 28 points over the previous year. “We’re pleased with our academic achievements and that we can provide a quality education to children, many who come from low income homes,” says Avery Schools Superintendent Grace Calhoun. “We’re making good progress.”

The Avery school system this year was one of 11 in the state to receive a $450,000, three-year federal grant to determine the value of technology in the learning progress of students.

While property values and financial stability of the summer residents in the two counties are high, many of the public school students come from homes of natives with low incomes. The summer residents, however, offer voluntary tutoring and other assistance to both school systems. “This is a major advantage for us,” says Calhoun.

Tree Farming Grows

Much of the lure of the two counties also pertains to heritage and past generations of craftsmen, musicians and farmers. Agriculture is still a thriving enterprise in the two counties, with the primary crop being Christmas trees. Agriculture employs about a third of Avery’s labor force and about 28 percent of the laborers in Watauga.

Watauga’s farm income last year totaled more than $17 million with horticulture and silvaculture (Christmas trees) drawing more than half that total. There are 1,300 operating farms in Watauga. Burley tobacco production is falling as horticulture and organic crops increase.

When there is a drop in Christmas tree sales, it’s from lack of trees, not lack of customers. A marketable tree requires six to eight years to grow and droughts and frosts on young saplings can stunt growth. But unlike some industries in the region that are staying small, tree farmers are getting bigger or switching crops.

Some tree farmers plant up to 50,000 trees a year and sell tens of thousands, almost all of them Fraser firs. This year’s crop is called better than average and harvesting began in late fall. “What all this means is that you would be nuts to have a plastic tree,” says Watauga extension service agent Sue Counts. “This has been a good year for healthy trees.”

As hearty as tree growing has been, however, some farmers are shifting to crops less susceptible to weather extremes like trees or health questions like tobacco. There is another cash crop that is even more profitable — broccoli. “It is just starting to catch on,” says farmer Charles Church of his organic broccoli production. “Some folks are still hesitant to take it on and try something new, but I’ve just always wanted to do things like that.” Church markets 600 pounds of broccoli a week, along with other organic vegetables, most sold to area restaurants.

Church debunks the argument of tobacco farmers that there is no cash equivalent. Broccoli is twice as good, he says. Church generates as much income from one acre of broccoli as he once did from one acre of tobacco, and with broccoli he produces two crops a year instead of one of tobacco.

The Golden Leaf Foundation, created with revenue from tobacco companies, has provided grants to local farmers who are converting tobacco fields into other forms of agriculture.“All these factors simply add to the beauty and appeal of this entire area,” says Donaghy of High Country Host, the agency that works to promote a six-county economic region. “There are magnificent vistas, a wonderful climate, diversified populace and many amenities available.”

High Country Host is a 23-year-old public-private partnership that obtains its tourism budget from state funds and private property owners through membership dues.

With all the changes and diversity in the two counties, one thing that has remained constant is the racial makeup. Both Watauga and Avery are each 97 percent white. The three- percent minority population includes growing numbers of Hispanics.

“Oh, and one more thing,” said Visitors Bureau director Forehand with a chuckle. “We’re above the kudzu line. Kudzu doesn’t grow this high up the mountain.” For non-Southerners, kudzu is the rapidly growing vine that covers anything it touches in lower elevations of the state. The only people who like it are those hired to trim it.

So, while there are no jobs for kudzu cutters in Watauga and Avery, the gates are open for tourists and people who want to enjoy the scenery, the organized growth and the steady pace. The hills are alive and ready to serve. Some who come for a weekend stay a lifetime. It may be cold here in the winters, but this is a place where people celebrate instead of hibernate.

Left: Dozens of boutiques, art galleries and antique shops line the streets of Blowing Rock

'Our Challenge Will Be to Maintain
and Improve What They Have Started'

Walt Disney never lived in the mountains of North Carolina, but Hugh Morton and the Robbins brothers have, and that’s what matters. With Morton and the Robbins family at work, the western part of this state has an abundance of entertainment and family fun enterprises that also add to the region’s economic stability. 

Who needs a Disney World when you have Grandfather Mountain, Tweetsie Railroad, a handful of first-rate ski slopes and some of the finest and most picturesque home developments and golf courses in the country? Morton and the Robbins brothers have helped bring it all to Watauga and Avery counties. Their environmentally healthy developments, combined with their genuine love for the mountains and populace, have added millions to the local economy and laid a foundation that will live and thrive for generations if those who follow adhere to the quality standards that have been established. They have been genuine goodwill ambassadors for the region as well as economic stimulants.

“I’m proud of the way we have done things,” Spencer Robbins says. “I have always tried to enhance values in all I have done. My goal has always been to create a development that would have a real impact on this area without destroying or detracting from the natural environment. Ideally, that should be the underlying aspiration of every developer.”

Morton responds with an echo. “I am a developer, but there is such a thing as overdevelopment,” he says. “And I do believe that we are better protected for continuing the quality of life for future generations than some other places.”

Those aren’t the kinds of words often spoken by people who have fostered the kind of growth that Morton and Robbins have. But then they aren’t typical land developers. Rather, they are land preservationists who happen to also provide homes, healthy lifestyles and entertainment venues for thousands.

Additionally, both are genuinely polite and sincere without any pretentiousness as they daily represent the best of what the two counties have to offer businesses, residents and visitors.

Morton, 82, has constructed a model scenic family gathering place atop Grandfather Mountain, which he owns in Avery County, and has won accolades nationally for the way he has done it.

Robbins, 76, is one of three brothers who followed their father’s lead in merging land development and lifestyles for the good of the entire area. Together, the trio created Tweetsie Railroad in Watauga County, which has entertained kids and parents for more than 40 years. They also developed Hound Ears in Watauga, a residential and golf community, ski resorts and upper-end residential neighborhoods that have added millions to local tax coffers and allowed the counties of Watauga and Avery to thrive culturally and economically.

Spencer Robbins now manages Elk River Country Club, a high-end and appealing development, at Banner Elk in Avery County. Brother Harry, 78, is still affiliated with Tweetsie, although his son, Chris, is the daily manager. Oldest brother Grover Robbins Jr., now deceased, was known as the one with the initial vision, but his siblings have fallen right in line. Collectively, the Robbins brothers and Morton have more than 200 years of experience in creating economic foundations and lifestyles that people have come to admire and respect.

“These men have created a wonderful foundation that has withstood the test of time,” says Harris Prevost, vice president of Grandfather Mountain and a former N.C. Travel Council president. “They all love this state. Hugh (Morton) is uncomfortable with accolades, but he really gets excited about projects. It will be different in future generations without these leaders, but our challenge will be to maintain and improve what they have started.”

“The leadership and vision shown by these men have moved this area from just another small mountain town to a thriving, progressive community and region” says Michael Wagoner, president of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce. “Their contributions to tourism and the ecology are legion.”

Two of Wagoner’s chamber colleagues, Laurette Leagon and Mac Forehand, agree after watching the counties evolve through the years.  “Their commitment to this region and the quality of life has been tremendous,” Forehand says. “Tourism and second-home residences have added significantly to our communities and diversity. They are the giants, but we have a lot of their disciples who can follow their lead.”

Adds Leagon: “They’ve set the benchmark for how this region should and will continue to develop and progress.”

Neither Morton nor Spencer Robbins accept much credit for what has happened under their guidance, both saying it is no big deal because they have always done what they felt was right.

But both have clearly distinguished themselves as the kind of community leaders any county would love to embrace. While both are men of few words, their actions speak volumes.  — Ned Cline

Northwest Region Sees Bright Future
Reflected in Minds of ASU Students

Appalachian State University has been called a living laboratory for citizenship. Given the institution’s impact in the region, few would challenge that assessment, although many could add other accolades.

The flourishing public university in Boone is one of three crown jewels of education and healthcare that have helped make Watauga and Avery counties in northwestern North Carolina an appealing region for advancement and lifestyles. The other two are medical centers and the community college campus.

ASU, founded 104 years ago, is to Watauga County and neighboring communities what R.J. Reynolds once was to Winston-Salem and what the Research Triangle Park still is to Raleigh-Durham.

The university campus is by far the county’s largest employer with a staff of 2,200. The economic impact of the campus is estimated at $450 million a year. It has an annual operating budget of $210 million with capital construction projects under way or planned that represent another $140 million. Anyway you slice it, that’s big business for the region.

The school, which offers 95 undergraduate degrees and 81 graduate programs, has an enrollment of 14,343 this year, including off-campus programs. It adds about 150 students every year. Three-fourths of its graduates live and work in North Carolina and many of its 2,600 graduates each year remain in western North Carolina and join the workforce and boost the economy. The school also partners with 10 regional community colleges in offering academic programs.

A third of ASU students major in arts and sciences, a quarter major in applied arts, 21 percent in business and another 20 percent in education and music.

“While Appalachian has an obvious direct economic impact on the region,” says interim chancellor Harvey Durham, “the university’s greatest benefit to Northwest North Carolina and the western Piedmont is educating citizens for the rigorous demands of the state’s evolving economy.”

Local civic and economic boosters point with pride to the economic stimulus the university brings, but also to the culture and diversity it adds. Students this year represent 41 states and 50 nations, although half come from communities within 100 miles of the campus.

Second in economic impact in Watauga and Avery counties to Appalachian University is the medical community. Watauga Medical Center in Boone and Cannon-Sloop Hospital in Linville help keep the economy and people who need medical care in good health.

Watauga Medical Center is the county’s second-largest employer with some 900 fulltime employees, 85 of them medical staff. The county’s school system had roughly the same number of employees. The Medical Center has beds for 117 patients and had revenue last year of $69 million with annual payroll of $29 million. Hospital leaders say they spend about $14 million on supplies each year. The center’s property, physical plant and equipment are valued at $92 million.

The Medical Center is made up of the Seby Jones Cancer Center, which offers outpatient chemotherapy and radiation services; Mallard Kidney Dialysis, with 10 stations for treatment; the Home Health unit; the Paul Broyhill Wellness and Rehabilitation Center; the Outpatient Imaging and Lab Center; and a nine-room birthing center. The facility’s services include family practice, internal medicine, general and plastic surgery and other specialties.

The Cannon-Sloop facility in Linville, built with private donations, also offers some of the latest in treatments.

“We’re fortunate to have both the university and the regional healthcare facilities,” says Boone Chamber President Michael Wagoner. “They’re all first rate. Both the university and the medical centers afford us services beyond what most communities this size have available.”

Also adding to the economic and educational foundation of the region is the Watauga campus of Caldwell Community College and Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk in Avery County.

Lees-McRae, founded in 1900, is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church and serves 600 students with options for 26 different degrees.

Both the population and industries of the two counties are served by the Watauga campus of Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, which serves 1,000 students each semester, and reflects the growth and progress of the region. The local campus offered its first classes in 1973 in the Boone bus station. A new campus opened in 1997 outside of Boone on Highway 105. Growth plans call for new campus facilities that will overlook Grandfather Mountain and are scheduled to be ready next spring.

The community college campus, with a staff of 38, offers academic opportunities in more than 70 programs that allow credit toward degrees at four-year schools. Most popular courses are accounting, information systems, nursing, landscape gardening, and medical administration. Local businesses are also served through the school’s Small Business Center that offers free seminars, counseling and customized training programs.

“It is incredible to have watched the growth from three employees to the present 38 we now have at the Watauga campus,” says President Kenneth Boham. “It has been a ‘build it and they will come’ situation. We are excited to move forward to meet the growing demand for services that have a positive impact on increased employment in Watauga County.”

The Watauga campus serves 30 percent of the parent community college total student body enrollment. The campus this year received the Boone Chamber of Commerce Community Advocate Award and two years ago was honored with the High Country Quality of Life Award.    — Ned Cline

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