All aboard

Some fear skyrocketing land values and a building boom could derail the tourism industry in the western highlands.
By Edward Martin

During the Depression, conductors on the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina — wags called it the “eat taters and wear no clothes” — sometimes let locals ride free if they couldn’t pay the fare between Boone and Johnson City, Tenn. Riders gave the railroad another nickname — Tweetsie — because its steam whistles were as shrill as a pubescent teenager’s whine, not mournful like those of most locomotives.

The ET&WNC shut down in 1950. Seven years later, Grover Robbins Jr. refurbished Engine No. 12 as the centerpiece of North Carolina’s first theme park, a Wild West fantasy with dance-hall girls, Indian attacks and gunfights. Now open for its 50th season, Tweetsie Railroad Inc. is run by his nephew Chris, who faces a problem few 1930s riders could have imagined: Prosperity could derail a $7 million-a-year business.

Escalating land values threaten it and dozens of other mountain attractions. Robbins knows he doesn’t have long to decide Tweetsie’s fate. His family owns about 90 of the park’s 200 acres. In April, it finished renewing leases on the rest, which will keep the theme park in Blowing Rock three more years. Details are confidential, but the rent was tied to increases in local land prices and likely doubled, as it did with the leases Tweetsie negotiated just five years earlier.

“This lease will carry us through 2010,” Robbins says. “But we can’t wait until then to decide what we’re going to do.” If it can’t negotiate a long-term deal for its site, the company has an option to buy more than 300 acres in adjoining Wilkes County.

The tourist trade throughout western North Carolina faces pressure from two directions, he says. “One is the increased desirability of mountain land and the fact that the landowners from whom we rent have to evaluate the various uses of their land. Is this the highest and best use? But also, as owners, we have to evaluate whether it’s worth it to be in the theme-park business with this level of land rent.”

Such questions vex officials in Raleigh, as well. Travel contributed $15.4 billion to the state economy last year. Western North Carolina accounted for more than $2 billion — nearly 15% — of that. People go there for the region’s natural beauty, so anything that jeopardizes it concerns Lynn Minges, director of the N.C. Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development. “There’s still room for good development,” she says, “but I hope folks realize they shouldn’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

The goose is far from dead, but it is looking a little peaked. A few miles east of Tweetsie, the Blue Ridge Parkway is among the state’s most visited attractions: 20.9 million people traveled on it in 2006, up about 6.5% from 2005. But the record was set in 2002, when 23.5 million rode on it. Some Parkway officials blame part of the decline on civilization creeping ever closer. Vistas stretch as far as the eye can see in some places — particularly where the Parkway passes through national forests — but residences, businesses and side roads lie within a few hundred feet of it in others. “Within the last 10 years, we’ve lost 20% of the parkway’s traditional views to air pollution and encroaching development,” says Houck Medford, executive director of Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, a Winston-Salem-based nonprofit. “Each loss in aesthetics translates into a loss of tourism dollars. It’s real.”

Some cities and counties have started taking action. In April, Buncombe County adopted a zoning ordinance that included restrictions on building near the parkway and Biltmore Estate, its two top tourist attractions. Out-of-state visitors spent about $585 million in Buncombe in 2005, the latest year studied. In adjoining Haywood County, the tourism board gave the National Park Service $15,000 to help maintain parkway views.

The state, too, has taken a role. In April, it agreed to pay $24 million for the nearly 1,000 acres that make up Chimney Rock Park, near Lake Lure. The deal was struck after members of the family that owned the private park put it on the market for $55 million. State officials feared developers would scoop up the property, which was visited by about 250,000 last year.

Land prices are soaring. Property in parts of Watauga County has leaped from $500 an acre to close to 10 times that since the 1980s. Large tracts, which normally sell at a per-acre discount, are no exception. The Ginn Co. of Celebration, Fla., bought about 6,000 acres — paying about $10,000 an acre — for a giant second-home development east of the Parkway. “Most of that land was cut-over timber-company land that sold for a couple hundred dollars an acre a few years ago,” says Joe Furman, county planner and Watauga County Economic Development Commission director. “That’s not uncommon.” Will development eventually get so dense that people don’t want to come? “I don’t know. But it’s a question we have to be asking ourselves.” Some of the answers might be hard for the tourist industry to swallow.

In 2005, food service and lodging, the bulk of the industry, employed nearly 38,000 in western North Carolina. Hospitality was the region’s third-largest for-profit employer, behind manufacturing and retail. Construction employed about 24,000, but with building booming, some experts expect construction to catch up to travel and tourism.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Manufacturing — largely furniture and textiles — has been hit hard in western North Carolina. “Construction is becoming our manufacturing,” Furman says. “We’ve got a shortage of construction workers, from labor up to managers, and it’s only going toget worse.” Construction generally pays higher wages than tourism. But some experts caution that the construction boom might not be as sustainable an industry as mountain tourism has been.

On a morning in early May, as Chris Robbins watches workers get Tweetsie ready for another season, his outlook is mixed, too. In the mountains of Watauga County, the shriek of carpenter saws has long been more common than train whistles. “If we’re victims, then we’re victims of ourselves. With Tweetsie, our goal was to bring people from the flatlands up to the mountains, to expose them to the beauty and to have fun. We can’t complain now if they stay.”