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Triad

State zoo attracts tourists confined by tough economy 

You might consider the North Carolina Zoo the Family Dollar of Tar Heel tourist attractions. When the economy tanks, Matthews-based Family Dollar Stores Inc. thrives. Through three quarters of its 2010 fiscal year, the discount retail chain’s net income was $284.2 million, up 23% from the previous year, which in itself was a 25% increase over 2008. Those gains came at a time of high unemployment and tighter household budgets, which forced consumers to rein in spending.

Something similar has been happening at the state zoo, near Asheboro. Attendance increased by more than 20,000 in the fiscal year ended June 30 to 749,627, the most in 13 years and fourth-best since the zoo opened in 1974.

Asked about the increase, spokesman Rod Hackney notes the opening of two major exhibits — the Acacia Station giraffe-feeding program and the Lemur Island exhibit. He also mentions increased marketing with social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, and says staff has posted videos on YouTube to entice visitors.

But there’s something else, he says. “The economy is still having an impact on what people do. The ‘staycation’ is still in play, with people doing more day trips.” About 80% of the zoo’s visitors live in North Carolina, and its central location in the heavily populated Piedmont makes it an easy drive from most of the state. “We’re an attractive and reasonable-cost alternative for people who can’t go to the beach for a week. They can come here for a day.”

This isn’t the first time the zoo has thrived during hard times. The previous recession ran from March through November 2001, spanning the zoo’s 2000 and 2001 fiscal years. In the 2000 fiscal year, attendance increased 13% to 688,559. While it dipped a bit the following year, it was still 10.2% higher than in fiscal 1999-2000.

Lynn Minges, assistant secretary of commerce for tourism, marketing and global branding, says she wasn’t surprised by the zoo’s performance, given the economy, and she mentioned another factor. “When the cost of gas gets higher, as it did last year, people tend to travel shorter distances. That bodes well for our in-state attractions.” Also helping, she says, was a change in focus. The state has marketed the zoo museums, festivals and state parks as what it calls affordable indulgences. “North Carolina is a virtual playground, and we’ve worked hard to shape that message.”

Lower gas prices this year and improvements in the economy have helped stimulate the state’s tourism industry, which traditionally draws about two-thirds of its visitors from outside North Carolina, Minges says. “We’re doing pretty well statewide. Things aren’t quite where they were back in 2008, but hotel occupancy is up 5% and summer travel is increasing.”


MOCKSVILLE — A federal judge placed Renegade Holdings back in bankruptcy. The tobacco company’s reorganization plan was opposed by 16 state attorneys general (Triad Regional Report, July), who argued that a criminal investigation of the company and owner Calvin Phelps hadn’t been disclosed and that the knowledge could have affected a vote by creditors to approve the plan. A new vote hasn’t been scheduled.

GREENSBORO — Veteran restaurateur Rocco Scarfone, a partner in RCR Marketing, reportedly bought the Ham’s Restaurants chain for $360,000 at a bankruptcy court auction. The chain now has 10 restaurants, which will stay open, and about 500 employees. Ham’s started in 1935 and declared bankruptcy in October.

HIGH POINT — Furniture shipments fell nearly 16% in 2009, according to Smith Leonard’s annual assessment of the furniture industry. The local consulting firm says about 93% of the surveyed companies shipped less furniture than they did in 2008.

MEBANESandvik delayed expansion of its plant indefinitely. The Swedish toolmaker won’t finish construction nor begin hiring 51 more employees until the economy improves. It employs about 160 here.

LINWOOD — The U.S. Department of Transportation gave its North Carolina counterpart approval to replace the aging Yadkin River bridge on Interstate 85. It also put up $10 million in stimulus funds for the $136 million project, which is scheduled to begin in October and be completed in 2013.

WINSTON-SALEMForsyth Medical Center laid off 48 employees, its first widespread layoff in at least 10 years. The hospital, which still employs more than 5,200, blamed cuts in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, lower demand for elective procedures and the poor economy.

GREENSBORO — Guilford County’s bond authority approved a plan by Developers Urban Hotel Group and Elm Street Center to build a Wyndham Hotel downtown. They want $26 million in federal recovery-zone bonds to help pay for the $38 million project near the International Civil Rights Museum. It still needs state approval.

GREENSBORO — Sales of existing houses in Alamance, Davie, Forsyth, Guilford, Randolph, Rockingham, Stokes and Yadkin counties grew 20% in the first half of 2010, compared with the same period last year, says a study for the Triad Multi-Listing System. The average price fell 0.4% to $161,864.

LEXINGTONWindstream plans to cut 40 jobs here this month as it completes its integration of Lexcom Communications. That will leave the Little Rock, Ark.-based telecom with about 50 local jobs.

HIGH POINT — The city’s population grew 19% to 103,396 between 2000 and 2009, according to Census Bureau estimates. That was the largest increase of any Triad municipality. Winston-Salem’s population grew 13.7%. Greensboro’s increased 11.6%.