Value of wider highway splits Blowing Rock merchants
By Sam Boykin
For Bart Conway, the completion of the U.S. 321 highway widening in Watauga County can’t come soon enough. While the project has inconvenienced millions of motorists along the 4-mile stretch of road from Tanger Outlets in Blowing Rock to the Watauga and Caldwell county lines, Conway has been impacted more than most. He owns Canyons of the Blue Ridge, a restaurant located directly on the highway, about a mile south of downtown.
“We’ve had hard hats and construction trucks in our parking lot for years,” he says. “Sometimes traffic will stop in front of the restaurant for 20 minutes going both ways. I can’t quantify how much we’ve been impacted, but I know that’s not good for business.”
After more than five years, it looks like Conway will be getting some relief. Officials with Maymead, the Mountain City, Tenn.-based company overseeing the project, expect to finish by the end of this year. Maymead took over the $66.4 million road widening in March 2013 after the original contractor, Asheville-based Taylor & Murphy, went bankrupt, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation. The project expanded the road to four lanes and added walls, fencing and landscaping.
Tracy Brown, executive director of the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority, says he sympathizes with business owners who have been most affected. But as a destination, Blowing Rock hasn’t been impacted, he says. Occupancy-tax revenue has increased as the economy improved, from $700,000 in 2010-11 to about $977,000 in the most recent fiscal year. “Highway 64 has been under construction for the last three decades, and it’s never stopped people from going to the Outer Banks,” Brown says. “But we’re thrilled to see this come to an end. It’s now a nicer, safer stretch of road that will allow people to get up here quicker than ever.”
Sales have ticked up at Neaco gift shop in downtown Blowing Rock despite the construction, says owner Keith Neaves, who is on the local chamber board. “When the road project first started, people were freaking out and worried about what was going to happen. And while the whole corridor was really ugly for a long time, business for us has increased.”
As construction comes to a close, Conway remains a skeptic. “We never had a problem with the road before,” he says. “We had a nice little two-lane road with beautiful views and trees, and all that’s gone now. Four lanes can carry more traffic than two lanes, but how often do you need that?”
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ASHEVILLE — UNC Asheville is celebrating its 90th year. The university was established in 1927 as Buncombe County Junior College and joined the UNC System in 1969. The liberal-arts school has about 3,800 students and 300 faculty members.
BANNER ELK — Lees-McRae College President Barry Buxton will retire in May. Buxton, 68, has led the private college, which enrolls about 1,000, since 2010. His replacement has not been named.