Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Town square: Right-sized retreat

Beth Carden believes Hendersonville is a little like the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. “Asheville is a little too big for some people, and Brevard is a little too small. But Hendersonville is just right,” says Carden, executive director of the Henderson County Tourism Development Authority.

Alvin Vogtle and his wife, Laura, agree. The couple from Birmingham, Ala., is looking for a place to retire, and Hendersonville is their top choice. “We loved downtown Asheville, but it’s got too much traffic, and when we looked at prices, we would have had to live 20 minutes out of downtown,” he says. “But if you drive 20 minutes, here you are.”

Like many active retirees, the Vogtles are looking for a place with hiking trails, golf courses and other nearby activities. While Hendersonville has long had a reputation as a retirement haven, it also has begun to attract younger people and families as both a tourist destination and a place to call home.

According to the U.S. Census, Henderson County’s population increased 60% between 1990 and 2014, to about 111,000 residents, about one-third age 60 or older.  Neighboring Buncombe County grew 43% in the same period. In Hendersonville, the county seat, the population rose from 7,284 in 1990 to an estimated 13,650 in 2014.

“We don’t claim to compete with Asheville, but we do have breweries, vintners and cideries,” Carden says. It also has lower real-estate prices and a more receptive local government that speeds the development process, says Realtor Alan Rosenthal of Rosenthal Mountain Properties. The average sales price in Henderson County in the last six months was $240,000, or 30% less than Asheville’s average of $334,000, he says.

Hendersonville’s popularity partly stems from a collaborative effort by local businesses to attract a diverse customer base. Henderson County is alone among the state’s 100 counties to have its own tourism conference, which promotes ways for retailers and others to work jointly to attract tourists. Jim Sparks, co-owner of Flat Rock Ciderworks, which is joined by five breweries in the county, opened a tasting room on Main Street partly because of such efforts.

“If you come in to have a drink at 6 and then want to do something else, there has to be other businesses open downtown,” Sparks says. “So, some businesses are staying open later, others aren’t closing after Labor Day but are staying open year-round. Look around downtown. Most people are smiling because they’re having a good time.”

At the Carolina Mountain Artists Guild store on Main Street, Phyllis Leininger, a volunteer and charter member of the nonprofit, enjoys the diverse customer base. “People love old-fashioned, handmade things,” she says. “We stay busy because of that.”

Recent efforts to restore old buildings and add landscaping have made downtown more pleasing. Reflecting the city’s success, Standard & Poor’s Corp. upgraded its credit rating to its second-highest level in 2014. Sculptures and plantings have been added along Main Street, alongside two dozen life-size, fiberglass bears painted by local artists, and at the historic county courthouse, built at the turn of the 19th century, which stands as the centerpiece of downtown. Old-fashioned accents such as the clock on the outside of the Mineral and Lapidary Museum blend with the retro appeal of Dad’s Collectibles and Toys, which sports two Coca-Cola themed murals.

“This is one of only two buildings in North Carolina with dual Coke murals,” says owner Mark Ray, who  has run a downtown store for 18 years. He convinced Charlotte-based Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated to pay for three murals — two on his building and one on the side of Mike’s on Main, a retro soda fountain and sandwich shop.

Shannon Clarke has watched downtown thrive in recent years, even as other towns’ central districts have foundered. While a regional mall and a stretch of big-box stores are less than two miles away, the downtown is filled entirely with businesses based in western North Carolina. The largeststore is Valle Crucis-based Mast General Store, which opened in 1995.

“Tourism is our base,” says Clarke, a member of the Henderson County Tourism Development Authority. “But this is a place where people who live nearby like to come, too.”

When owners are present, it’s easier to work together without the need for consulting with a distant corporate office. “We invest a lot to make sure there are no empty storefronts here,” Clarke says. “If one opens up, someone usually knows of a business that would work in the location.”

Once mostly dependent on summer tourists, many of downtown’s more than 20 restaurants and music venues now stay open year-round. The city also hosts various festivals and events, including the oldest street dance in the country. For 98 years, people have gathered for square dancing and clogging to bluegrass music on summer Monday evenings. Music on Main Street concerts on Fridays include vintage car shows.

Hendersonville draws people by the tens of thousands to its Garden Jubilee during Memorial Day weekend and the North Carolina Apple Festival on Labor Day weekend. The Garden Jubilee features more than 250 vendors, hands-on clinics, children’s activities, talks by gardening experts and more, while the apple festival draws some 300,000 people. Henderson County produces 85% of the state’s apples, while ranking third in combined fruit, vegetable and berry production, according to the city’s annual report.

“The beauty of downtown is that there’s always something going on,” says Carden, the tourism director. “It’s quiet here, but it’s never dull.”

Leslie Boyd is an Asheville writer.

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