For those who live and work in Ashe County, we’ve always known this is a magical area of North Carolina.
And it’s clear, after the presentation on the financial impact of tourism here offered by Scott Ballard with the Ashe Chamber of Commerce on Monday to the county commissioners, that we’re well on our way to becoming a significant visitor destination.
The dollars tell the story best. In 1991, tourism-related spending generated $14.29 million. In 2012, $46.55 million or an astonishing 225 percent increase.
In fact, over those 21 years, only in 2003 and 2008, did spending decline from the previous year. Each of the other 19 years increased from the previous.
That is simply a remarkable pattern of economic growth and, we’re certain, would be the envy of just about every community in our great state.
What is also remarkable is that the other counties in the High Country have easily identifiable attractions for visitors.
In Watauga County, Blowing Rock has been a draw for visitors for generations. Add the university to the mix and the dynamic arts and music scene and the large number of recreational activities, and the attraction is obvious.
Avery County, which hosts the two largest of the state’s five ski resorts and the quaint village of Banner Elk, is another easy draw for visitors.
Wilkes County has MerleFest, which kicked off Thursday.
But what attracts visitors to Ashe County?
What compels a family to make Ashe County its choice for a vacation retreat?
The easy answer is the mild summers here. But Watauga and Avery have almost identical climates.
There are Christmas trees, frescoes and the New River, and the state parks, but nothing you can clearly point out as to why people choose to come here.
We believe that it’s more than just an “attraction” that draws people here. Something more ethereal. You can feel it, but you can’t quite see it.
You get a sense that once you enter Ashe County, you’ve stepped back into time. A time when life was simpler and slower. Where every person you pass on the street is a friend or neighbor.
Even those of us who work and live here understand that attraction.
But that can’t quite explain the remarkable growth over the last 21 years.
We believe the small, weekend events during the spring, summer and fall add up to what might be defined as an attraction.
As those of us who live and work here know, there is something going on every weekend during those six months. And visitors have learned that too. They know if they book a room or a cabin for a week, or a weekend, there will an event occurring while they’re here.
In Todd, there is the summer music series, which draws acclaimed musicians from around the country to perform. In Jefferson, the Olde Town Jefferson Business Association continues to develop new weekend events; Oktoberfest was a fantastic time.
Lansing is making great strides in developing itself as a destination choice and the planned Lansing Creeper Trail Park will one day be one of the county’s crown jewels for recreation and relaxation.
In West Jefferson, it’s hard to put a value on what the Ashe County Arts Council provides to county residents and visitors alike in terms of cultural events featuring art, music and more.
There are also the Backstreet Park Summer Concerts that are always a local, and visitor, favorite.
What is really remarkable is that all of these separate events have started and grown without any real county-wide coordination. Of course, some of the events bump into one another, but that only offers locals and visitors a variety of events to choose from each weekend.
And there are the local merchants who have adapted to the new economic reality by appealing to locals and visitors alike. Their entrepreneurship is to be applauded.
Ashe County is a magical place and the word has gotten out.
The dollars tell the story.