Saturday, September 23, 2023

Western: Under fire

Like bears on a binge, the 50 or so small businesses of Hickory Nut Gorge fatten up in the fall. The area, formed by nearly vertical cliffs that encompass Lake Lure, Chimney Rock and Bat Cave, “is a visitor-based economy, and the leaf season is the end of our annual business cycle,” says Tommy Hartzog, executive director of the Chamber of Hickory Nut Gorge. “Most gather in that last bit of cash flow to tide them over until spring.” However, for many businesses in western North Carolina, this year’s hibernation could be bleak after the worst drought on record sparked widespread fires.

The economic impact of two dozen major fires that burned more than 50,000 acres, twice the size of Asheville, remained under study in early December.  Losses caused by mandatory evacuations, road closings, a 25-county state of emergency and negative peak-season publicity will run into scores of millions of dollars.

In tiny Hickory Nut Gorge, Don Cason, owner of the historic Esmeralda Inn & Restaurant and director of the Rutherford County Tourism Development Authority, says he and other business owners lost as much as 75% of their revenue for two weeks or more. The mostly sole-proprietor restaurants, shops and inns line the gorge’s only highway, U.S. 74. The gorge fire began Nov. 4, and mandatory evacuations of about 1,000 residents started a week later during the normally busy Veterans Day weekend. In Rutherford County, Cason says, tourism brings in about $154 million a year, much of it from the Lake Lure area.

The wildfires triggered deep emotions from Hickory Nut Gorge owners. In late November, Cason fretted as similar wildfires devastated Gatlinburg, Tenn. He and his wife, Kim, had operated an inn there for 10 years before coming to North Carolina in 2014 to buy the 125-year-old Esmeralda, a former stagecoach stop. Twice in its history, the Esmeralda has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt, the last time in 1997.

But there were also signs of hope. Hotel occupancy in the Asheville area was stable compared with a year earlier, even though fires spooked potential visitors, says Marla Tambellini, vice president for marketing of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. Tourism generates about $1.7 billion a year in direct spending in Buncombe County and supports 25,000 jobs.

In Hickory Nut Gorge, Hartzog and Cason say, the fires burned undergrowth and humus, creating choking smoke but probably doing little permanent damage to forests and the scenery that attracts tourists.

“Everybody here’s a guerrilla warrior, and we’re good businesspeople, so we’ll survive,” Hartzog says. “It might be a hurricane one year and fire 10 years later, but we’ll get by.”

FOREST CITY — Everest Textile will open a 610-employee plant, investing $18.5 million over five years. The Taiwan-based company makes sports apparel for Nike, Columbia and other brands. Everest could receive as much as $3 million in state incentives if it meets job-creation goals.

EAST FLAT ROCK — Elkamet will invest $6.5 million and add 25 workers at its local plant, where it makes plastic components such as oil tanks for Ford, Volkswagen and others. The German company employs 108 people at the Henderson County plant, which opened in 2007.

ASHEVILLE — Cypress Creek Renewables will acquire FLS Energy for an undisclosed amount. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company has invested more than $1.5 billion in solar farms since it was started in 2014. Ten-year-old FLS develops and builds solar farms and employs about 75 people.

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