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Grandfather Mountain will be a state park

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.

LENOIR — St. Louis-based Furniture Brands International plans to spend about $3 million to consolidate its Broyhill upholstery manufacturing and warehousing in the state. It will employ about 670 in the first quarter of 2009 at a factory and warehouse it closed in 2006. That’s about 15% fewer than work at plants it will close here and in Taylorsville. But it plans to add more than 400 jobs within three years.

SPINDALESky America Service Center plans to open a call center this year that will employ at least 50 initially and more than 1,250 in five years. The company was formed by Sunrise, Fla.-based Orbis Global Solutions, a call-center operator, and Rutherfordton-based Sky Catcher Communications, an installer of high-speed computer networks.

BOONE — The town will pay $1.25 million to buy the 3,800-square-foot downtown post-office building. The Postal Service will lease about 625 square feet — at $11,250 a year — for at least 20 years. The town hasn’t decided what to do with the rest.

FLETCHER — Attendance at the Mountain State Fair declined 5.3% this year to 177,869. A state Department of Agriculture official blamed poor weather and gasoline shortages.

SYLVA — Jackson County officials will fight Duke Energy’s plan to remove a dam at Dillsboro. They say the 12-foot-tall dam is a landmark and tourist attraction. Duke plans to begin demolition in 2010.