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Western

Price is right but money tight 

Pond Mountain rises 5,000 feet above sea level in Ashe County, and views from its peak take in parts of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Appraised at $14 million, it’s worth less than it was a few years ago, making it even more attractive to preservationists. But here’s the rub: The down economy that has soured real-estate values has made it harder to raise public and private money to acquire land for the public. “If you’re forced to lay off teachers, you don’t want to be going out and buying tremendous amounts of property,” says Walter Clarke, executive director of West Jefferson-based Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust.

Land preservation is a big concern in western North Carolina. The region was responsible for at least a quarter of the state’s $22.2 billion travel-and-tourism industry in 2008, and four counties — Buncombe, Swain, Henderson and Watauga — each had more than $150 million in visitor spending and 1,500 or more tourism jobs. “Western North Carolina’s greatest economic resource is its beauty, and that’s the dilemma,” Clarke says. “So many people want to be here, how do you protect it?”

The answer has long been for preservation groups to buy threatened land or obtain conservation easements or trusts to forestall commercial development until the state can assume ownership. And seldom has there been a better time to buy. Last fall, The Nature Conservancy, the largest land-preservation nonprofit in the state, helped Hendersonville-based Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy purchase about 1,800 acres of a bankrupt project near Lake Lure for $2.5 million. Before the recession, the land had been appraised at $4.5 million.

Conservationists might get help with other parts of the equation this year. A federal tax break for landowners who don’t develop scenic property expired in December, but Congress appears likely to reinstitute it and make it retroactive.

Because that funding dried up last year, conservationists have a backlog of pending deals such as Pond Mountain to tackle before taking on new projects. Katherine Skinner, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina, guesses preservation groups have a window of five to seven years to buy land cheaply. “Once we take care of the backlog, we’ll be back in the market before you see an uptick in commercial development. That’s my bet.”

Snowfall lifts skiing

The ski season in western North Carolina pushed off slowly, with many slopes not opening until early December due to a dearth of flakes. Then it slipped on an icy patch during the holidays. But the state’s six ski resorts and two snow-tubing parks finished strong, thanks to major snowfalls in February and March. “The last four weeks of the season I don’t think they could have been better timed,” says Mike Doble, editor of SkiNC.com, a Web site that tracks the industry. “We’d have snowstorms that would fall Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. But on the weekends, the roads would be perfectly clear.” When all the numbers are in, he says, 2009-10 likely will surpass records set the previous year, despite tough times overall. “Snow always trumps the economy.”

 

Owners of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park have until the end of this month to set up a plan for repaying creditors $12 million. Otherwise, the property in Maggie Valley goes into foreclosure. BB&T, which is owed $9.5 million, agreed to the extension though it had the right to foreclose immediately. Also, the federal government will spend $1.3 million to clean up a mudslide that blocked access to 37 houses after a retaining wall at the park failed in February. Road repairs will cost the state $284,000.

ASHEVILLE — The city is among the 10 best places in the country to buy a second home, according to investment weekly Barron’s. Among other places on the list, which was not ranked, are Aspen, Colo., and Pebble Beach, Calif. The list was directed at families with at least $5 million of net worth.

FOREST CITYWilbert Plastic Services bought United Southern Industries, a plastic-injection molder. Terms were not disclosed. Wilbert will keep 110 of United’s 145 employees at two local plants. Wilbert moved its headquarters from Broadview, Ill., to Belmont earlier this year. It employs about 200 there and in Harrisburg.

FLETCHER — The number of passengers who flew out of Asheville Regional Airport in 2009 increased 4.5% to 291,950. The airport added nonstop flights to Chicago, New York and Orlando, Fla., while losing trips to Cincinnati and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

ARDENCPU2 began adding 60 jobs here, which will bring employment to more than 360. It provides call-center and fulfillment services to direct marketers and other companies.