Grandfather Mountain won’t become the Myrtle Beach of the west. That — the nightmare of many Tar Heels — seems to have been avoided after the state signed a $12 million pact to turn undeveloped parts of the attraction into a state park. The owners — heirs of Hugh Morton, who himself inherited the rugged peak in 1952 — agreed to a conservation easement that will restrict development of the 604 acres they still own.
“The dreams of many North Carolinians and Hugh Morton will be met,” says Gov. Mike Easley, who praised the family for a deal in which the state will acquire about 2,600 undeveloped acres. Moneymaking attractions such as the gift shop, nature center and the Mile-High Swinging Bridge will be converted to a nonprofit controlled by the Mortons.
It’s the second recent blockbuster deal for state parks. But Crae Morton, Hugh Morton’s grandson and president of Grandfather Mountain Inc., calls them “apples to oranges.” In January 2007, the state agreed to buy 996-acre Chimney Rock Park in Rutherford County for $24 million. The state already had bought nearly 2,300 acres surrounding Chimney Rock, whose owners were besieged by developers.
In Grandfather Mountain’s case, visitors will see few immediate changes. The $14 admission will remain the same, and attractions could grow. “The way the easement is written, we can expand our facilities by three times, without asking the state for permission,” says Catherine Morton, Crae Morton’s aunt and one of six Mortons still on the business’s board. The nonprofit will be funded by the sale. Development, though, should remain subdued.
Grandfather Mountain has long been a nature preserve, where biologists say more than 70 rare species of animals and plants can be found. The acreage bought by the state includes 11 trails, from short nature walks to rugged mountain climbs.
The state’s acquisition comes as Grandfather Mountain pursues what Crae Morton describes as a greener agenda, which has included performing a vasectomy on one of the park’s overly prolific bears — “You can imagine the conversation with our veterinarian” — to installing solar panels and selling electricity to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Morton installed a smaller system to provide hot water and solar heat for the mountain’s fudge shop. State and federal tax credits will pay up to 60% of the $25,000 cost.
The agreement to become a nonprofit, Morton says, will encourage more. “We’ll be able to get better funding than we ever had before,” including seeking grant money. Among possibilities are harnessing the mountain’s notorious wind to generate power. A January 2006 gust went off its anemometer, which records to 200 mph.