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REGIONALREPORT Western

Pisgah Inn was too closed for comfort

clientuploads/Archive_Images/2013/12/western-region.jpgAll 51 rooms at Pisgah Inn had been booked, but each was empty. Just south of Asheville, the hotel gives guests a room along the Blue Ridge Parkway for $150 a night. However, many leaf-peepers had to alter their plans when the federal government shut down for 16 days in October. “I estimate my sales were down 22% for the month,” owner Bruce O’Connell says of his peak season. While the 469-mile national scenic roadway remained open, its visitor centers and other operations were closed. Pisgah Inn was caught in the middle. O’Connell pays a fee to run it, but the building is owned by the National Park Service, and rangers forced him to close when the government did. With no guests and an idled 100-member staff, O’Connell sued the Park Service. “My lawyer and their lawyer got together, and they said, ‘We don’t want to go to court. Tell Bruce he can reopen.’” Five days into the shutdown, he did.
The congressional showdown struck at the worst time for western North Carolina businesses that cater to tourists visiting the parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Southern Highland Craft Guild, a nonprofit that sells merchandise on behalf of about 1,000 people in nine states, is based at the Folk Art Center in Asheville. Inside, its Allanstand Craft Shop peddles the work of members, and in October, daily sales typically range from $8,000 to $15,000. The center, owned by the Blue Ridge Parkway, closed when the shutdown began. It followed Pisgah Inn’s lead and opened nine days later, but the damage had been done. The guild’s director says it will take several years to recoup the lost sales.
Wright Tilley, executive director of Watauga County Tourism Development Authority, expects October’s visitor numbers in the county will be in line with 2012 — they hadn’t been released by mid-November — because good weather and end-of-the-month events brought large crowds to the region during the second half of the month. “Unfortunately, we may not know the direct impact from the camping side. Tent campers [pay] no occupancy tax but may have impact on sales tax, gas stations, restaurants.” At Grandfather Mountain, which is not managed by the National Parks Service, the number of phone calls doubled. “Ninety percent of calls were, ‘Are you closed?’” Vice President of Operations Harris Prevost says. At the start of the shutdown, attendance fell 30% compared with the year before but bounced back — the total number of visitors for October was 2% higher than last year. Tilley suspects many people delayed visits instead of canceling them. Unfortunately for Pisgah Inn, guests didn’t have much time to reschedule. The hotel closed for the year Oct. 31.

Briefs

ASHEVILLE — In November, New Belgium Brewing resumed site preparation for the brewery it wants to build here after postponing work earlier in the year because of increased production capacity at its Fort Collins, Colo., headquarters. The brewer has reduced its planned local output from 700,000 to 500,000 barrels a year. The $175 million project is expected to be complete by late 2015 or early 2016.
ASHEVILLE — United Services Credit Union merged with Durham-based Self-Help Credit Union. United Services’ 11,000 members, $60 million of assets and seven branches will combine with Self-Help’s 50,000 members, $583 million of assets and 17 branches.

ETOWAH —
A federal jury convicted real-estate developer Keith Vinson of 13 charges, including conspiracy to commit bank fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States, wire fraud and money laundering. The charges are connected to his failed Seven Falls residential development, which filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The charges carry a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison, but he had not been sentenced by early November.