A favorite year-round travel destination for locals and tourists alike, Watauga County is a jewel in North Carolina’s crown. With its breathtaking mountain scenery, rich forests, rolling rivers and cool temperatures, the area is popular during the summer season; in the winter months, it provides an ideal setting for skiers, snowboarders and hikers.
Watauga County derives its name from a Cherokee translation of ‘shining water’ or ‘peaceful water.’ Its county seat and largest town is Boone, named after American explorer and frontiersman Daniel Boone. The historic county was formed in 1849 from sections of Ashe, Wilkes, Yancey and Caldwell counties situated in the lush Blue Ridge Mountains. Today, its villages such as Blowing Rock are desirable for their climbing, hiking and biking, unique shops and spas and family attractions such as the Tweetsie Railroad western theme park.
“This is a tourism area, as we are in the mountains of North Carolina,” says Director of Economic Development Joe Furman. “In the summer, the temperature is much cooler. People have been coming here close to 150 years to escape the heat, particularly in the Blowing Rock area, which is one of the towns in Watauga County.” For local companies like Misty Mountain Threadworks – a top designer and manufacturer of climbing harnesses – sports and outdoor activities are a natural fit.
As planning and inspections director for thirty-two years – with the role of economic development director added thirteen years ago – Furman has seen first-hand the growth of Watauga County over the decades. He holds a degree in geography from respected Appalachian State University, has studied planning and previously worked for two regional councils of government, one in South Carolina and the other in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Watauga County is celebrated for its scenery and many outdoor activities and, thus, a well-known destination for tourists and second-home owners. Several years ago, Boone and Watauga County adopted occupancy taxes and fund tourism development authorities through them.
Because of the need for a structured organization, the Watauga County Office of Economic Development was created in 1984. In that year, plans were made for an industrial park; a development commission was created, and a director was hired. This arrangement continued until the county contracted with the Boone area chamber of commerce for the economic development function. In 2003, the contract was not renewed; no one was taking care of economic development, and Furman volunteered to be caretaker until the governing board of the county chose what to do with the position. About a year later, the decision was made to make the position permanent.
In the past, the area was home to industries such as an electronic resistor company, a hosiery and lingerie manufacturer, a shoe company, and a saw blade maker. At present, Watauga County is in a unique position. Its business park is full, and private sector industrial land is costly due to tourism, the second-home market and the student housing market. The county worked with a consulting firm conducting a targeted marketing analysis. In many ways, the findings highlighted the county’s well-educated workforce which is largely due to the presence of Appalachian State University.
Originally established as a teachers’ college in 1899, Boone-based Appalachian State University later expanded to include other programs and now provides a broad range of educational opportunities in accounting, biology, chemistry, communication studies, environmental science, graphic arts, marketing, nursing, social work and business. The university is the sixth largest institution in the University of North Carolina system, with its 18,000 students a significant portion of the overall population of 53,000. It has seen many of its graduates pursue advanced degrees, embark on military careers and build businesses, some of them in the community.
“Appalachian State University has some really great programs,” says Furman. “These include The Walker College of Business, two strong computer sciences programs, a school of applied design – including some green and sustainable type design courses – and the college of health sciences.”
As a major state university with total employment of about 2,700 total faculty and other staff, it is an important component of northwestern North Carolina and the region’s top employer. “We have a very highly educated workforce, made up partly of students who graduate from Appalachian and wanted to stay here, with aptitude in areas like IT, so that would be one of our targets,” comments Furman.
Another key employer is the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, the second-largest employer in the area. As a result of the available talent and the university, Watauga County readily lends itself to potential medical-related businesses, including manufacturers, surgical instrument and medical device suppliers and manufacturing.
The respected facility is located in the Watauga Medical Center in Boone and recently earned an ‘A’ grade hospital safety score from The Leapfrog Group, a national patient safety watchdog. This makes the Watauga Medical Center one of 798 hospitals to receive an A, making the 117-bed regional referral medical complex among the safest hospitals in the United States.
The Foley Center at Chestnut Ridge is ninety-two percent complete and is scheduled to open in late 2016. It being constructed on a sixty-eight-acre site near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Blowing Rock. The post-acute care center will replace the Blowing Rock Rehabilitation & Davant Extended Care Center (formerly Blowing Rock Hospital).The facility will feature 112 beds, highly-skilled nursing care, post-acute rehabilitation care, assisted living, and palliative care in a neighborhood concept environment.
After a decade of planning, there was a ground-breaking ceremony held in late June for the Beaver College of Health Sciences (BCHS) facility. Construction is funded in part by $70 million allocated from the recently passed Connect N.C. bond. Building the 203,000-square-foot facility will be a tremendous boost to the state and to Boone. At present, almost twenty percent of Appalachian’s students are taught by the Beaver College of Health Sciences faculty in six departments. The college has sixteen undergraduate and graduate degrees ranging from nursing and communication sciences and disorders to nutrition and health care management.
Speaking on behalf of Governor Pat McCrory, N.C. State Budget Director Andrew Heath said, “future generations of students will have the opportunity to study health sciences here at [Appalachian State University] in the state-of-the-art Beaver College of Health Sciences building. This facility will help prepare students for high demand medical careers and further enhance health and quality of life in the region and in the state.”
Initiatives such as the new BCHS facility stand as a testament to the dedication of the state and community to the future of the county, a sentiment that was echoed by Provost Darrell Kruger. “This new facility is critical to our academic mission and a powerful example of how a university can be of service to our community and our state. The increase in access to quality healthcare will increase life expectancy for citizens in North Carolina, and as better health care lowers health care costs, future health care costs could decrease.”
Economic Development Director Furman is pleased with the progress and the growth of the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System. “Many rural hospitals are actually dying, and ours is prospering. It’s actually a two-hospital system and a post-acute care facility. Now with the university and a brand-new college of health sciences building, all of that makes this a good market for that sort of business. Finally, we could have some R&D and biotech – entirely because of the presence of the university – and these types of businesses would benefit by being near the university.”
For businesses wishing to start in or relocate to the area, Boone and Watauga County have a great deal to offer. From breathtaking mountain scenery to award-winning public schools, Appalachian State University, unrivalled healthcare system, a culture of entrepreneurship and creativity and a tremendous standard of living – including a low crime rate, vibrant neighborhoods and four-season recreational activities – Watauga County has something for everyone.
“Our unemployment rate is low, and people love to live here,” says Furman. “We’ve got a good culture for entrepreneurship, and we try to support entrepreneurs as much as possible. We have a lot of creative minds here and people who want to start their own businesses here.”