People - June 2007
Now that Crae Morton is running the show at Grandfather Mountain, he doesn’t feel compelled to do things the way his grandfather did. Since taking over the 4,500-acre private park near Linville last year, Morton, 34, has hired Appalachian State University professors to find ways to cut energy costs. He also wants to build a nature and research center that will be run by scientific organizations.
Maybe the most direct departure from the past will happen next year, when Grandfather Mountain renovates its 40-year-old mountaintop visitor center, partly so it blends in better with the scenery. “It’s not like it’s so ugly we’re embarrassed every time we drive by it, but if we’re going to redo the building, and we want to have it up there for another 40 years, then we want to consider fixing that element.”
Hugh Morton, his grandfather, inherited the land in 1952. He built the visitor center and another one about halfway up the nearly 6,000-foot mountain, named for a ridgeline that resembles an old codger’s craggy profile. In early 2003, he told his grandsons, Crae and Jack Morton, he was placing the park’s future in their hands. Both brothers went to work there, though Jack no longer does so full time.
Besides his ancestry, little in Morton’s past pointed to a career managing a mountain tourist attraction. He was born in Charlotte and raised in Wilmington. After earning a bachelor’s in communications in 1994 from the University of Pennsylvania, he worked as technical director of the Dallas Cowboys radio network, then was a leasing agent for light-industrial and retail space in Greensboro. He became president of Grandfather Mountain Inc. in 2005, but his grandfather still made big decisions until his death last year at age 85. The park, which has about 40 year-round employees, is owned by family members and Hugh Morton’s estate.
Morton won’t disclose revenue, but Grandfather Mountain draws about 220,000 visitors and probably grosses less than $5 million a year. Tickets contribute about 60% of sales. The research center and renovated lodge, he hopes, will boost its image and lure more visitors.
But it’s not all about him changing the park. He’s changed, too. “I wore a suit for much of my career, and I don’t anymore. I’m a lucky guy, and I go to work every morning trying to justify that luck.”