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
region basks in ASU's warm shadow
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
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,”
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
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
“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.
Dozens of boutiques, art galleries and antique shops line the streets of
'Our Challenge Will Be to
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
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
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
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
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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