A once-isolated mountain county becomes a vacation-home and golf mecca.
More than a century ago, North Carolina created its 100th and last county from parts of Caldwell, Mitchell and Watauga counties. Named after a Revolutionary War colonel, Avery County was a sparsely populated, beautiful area known for three famous mountains, Beech, Grandfather and Sugar.
It’s likely that few people then expected the county to ever become an economic force — why else would former Lenoir Mayor William Newland of Caldwell County push so hard for the split in 1911? Avery’s county seat is named after him.
Those three counties surely now must wish they had held on to their property.
“Much of our land has slopes greater than 50%,” says Tom Burleson, the 7-foot-2-inch N.C. State University basketball legend who has led his native county’s inspection department for many years. “We have some of the highest and most rugged peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Our beautiful scenery and cooler weather attract people in the summer, and our ski resorts attract them in the winter.”
Most of all, Avery County has a thriving second-home industry largely built around golf communities and tourism that create one of North Carolina’s most unusual local economies. Because of geographical limitations, there are no four-lane highways, railroad tracks or commercial airports. There is a limited presence of traditional industry and its accompanying employment and tax receipts.
But Avery County is rich in private golf course communities with nine total — compared with six traffic lights: Linville Golf Club, Grandfather Golf & Country Club, Linville Ridge, Elk River Club, Diamond Creek, Mountain Glen Golf Club, Linville Land Harbor, and Sugar and Beech mountains. Grandfather, Linville Ridge and Elk River are among the county’s biggest employers. Several courses consistently rank near the top of the N.C. Golf Panel’s top 100 Tar Heel courses.
Best estimates are that about 5,500 members reside at least part time at about 2,000 homes and condominiums in the nine second-home golf communities. Including an additional 1,100 houses spread across the county, Avery has about 3,100 homes that are classified as “resort” or second-home properties. Most are valued at more than $1 million, including many topping $3 million. Avery’s total year-round population of nearly 18,000 has increased by fewer than 1,000 over the past 20 years.
Though seasonal homeowners pay property and sales taxes to the county, they make minimal use of most county services. Those property owners don’t have children in local schools except in rare cases. Gated clubs are private, they pay for and maintain their own roads within their community, and they provide their own security.
“There’s not much else we can do here, but we are grateful for what we have,” Burleson says. “Hugh Morton, who owned Grandfather Mountain and helped develop Grandfather Golf & Country Club, gave me a vision for the second-home industry and the good that it would do for the people of Avery County. He was right.”
With COVID-19 sparking an unprecedented demand for second homes in less congested locations, Avery’s construction business has soared. Permits for new homes and renovations total $120 million over the last year, versus $79 million and $48 million in the two previous 52-week periods. The projects are roughly equally split between new construction and renovations, county officials say.
Since many second-home golf club members live in fine houses, their property taxes are significant. The golf courses are also prime real estate, adding a major bump to county tax coffers. The nine properties also make up about 47% of the county’s assessed tax value of nearly $4 billion. They contribute $10.2 million a year to the county, including $1.3 million that goes to eight local fire departments and rescue squads.
An increasing number of members are now working adults in their 40s and 50s, mostly from the big N.C. cities. That’s a change from the early days of Grandfather, when retired Floridians looking to avoid the Sunshine State’s sweltering summers were dominant. Now, spouses and children routinely spend summers in the mountains while the working spouse visits for three-day weekends and a full week now and then.
Because of the strong tax base, Avery is planning to open an expanded high school in August following a $20 million investment. A $3 million, 5,000-square-foot agricultural-civic center opened last year. It is aimed at boosting the area’s thriving agricultural sector. The county is a big Christmas tree producer and is one of only 14 U.S. counties with an elevation high enough for Fraser firs, the Cadillac variety of holiday trees, to thrive. Local trees are often used to decorate the Biltmore Estate in Asheville and the White House.
Because of the second-home communities, Avery’s property tax rates rank among the lowest 20% in North Carolina. Without those residences, local residents would pay nearly $600 a year more at what would probably be the state’s highest rate, local officials say.
Many wealthy part-time residents in Avery also regularly provide money for important quality-of-life facilities and programs. For example, a $3.5 million piece of radiation-therapy imaging equipment at Watauga Medical Center in Boone was financed by Linville Golf Club members in honor of a beloved friend.
Other beneficiaries include Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville, part of Boone-based Appalachian Regional Healthcare System; Williams YMCA of Avery County; Lees-McRae College; and various fire and rescue squads. Many institutions would struggle without that support.
Local philanthropy “has had a positive impact both in amount and in longevity. Giving is part of our tradition,” says Tom Dale, a retired golf professional in Linville who is chairman of the Appalachian Regional Healthcare board.
Donors are also helping to pay for renovations and expansions at Grandfather Mountain’s Nature Museum.
“The $7 million project would not be possible without support from our good friends in our local club communities,” says Jesse Pope, the Grandfather Stewardship Foundation president.
Each private club has member-funded college scholarship programs for their employees. One seasonal resident at Linville Golf Club set up a program to provide substantial scholarships for every need-based student who graduates from Avery County High School. Linville members contribute $100,000 a year to their employee-scholarship program. Beyond finances, second-home owners commit thousands of volunteer hours to area organizations.
Jim Ward, a member of Elk River Club, founded the High Country Charitable Foundation, which focuses on supporting other organizations in the county that help people and animals. “In 2020, we distributed $670,000 to Avery charities, a record for us,” he says. “We use the resources and connections of our club members to raise the money. We are privileged to live in such a wonderful place. I live in Florida in the winter, but my best friends are local residents.”
County Manager Philip Barrier says the golf clubs make up nearly 10% of the county’s workforce of more than 8,000. “Before the clubs, we were losing our young people because there were no jobs here,” Barrier says. “Now they can stay and have very successful careers, especially in construction and landscaping.” His son completed an associate degree in engineering and returned home to work for an electrical contractor.
Avery’s sales tax revenue increased 26% last year, Barrier says, while “property sales have exploded. I understand all our golf courses had record play this year, too. Our future is bright.” ■
Harris Prevost is a vice president of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation who started working for Hugh Morton in 1973. He taught accounting classes at Appalachian State University for 41 years. A member of the golf team while attending UNC Chapel Hill, he is a charter member of the N.C. Golf Panel.