BOONE — In the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce’s first installment of the State of the Community series, leaders from Blowing Rock to Boone provided updates on key happenings in the county.
The March 31 event focused on local government operations and featured Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque, Blowing Rock Town Manager Shane Fox and Boone Town Manager John Ward. AppHealthCare Public Health Director Jennifer Greene also provided an update on public health and COVID-19 during the event.
David Jackson, president and CEO of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, moderated the event.
One of the key updates Geouque provided was on the county kill/chill facility, which is a project proposed under the Golden Leaf Northwest Sector Community Based Grant Initiative program to create and construct new facilities for livestock slaughter and processing in Watauga County.
“When the pandemic started, there was no beef, there was hardly anything (in grocery stores),” Geouque said. “This is going to give us the opportunity to locally be able to process more cattle and so forth. We’re hoping that will provide food security for us and stability for us and also allow more locally grown products.”
Geouque said the facility would save time for farmers who have to go off the mountain to Taylorsville or Wilkesboro to process their livestock.
Another key issue Geouque addressed was broadband access in the county. He said the county receives an ample amount of input from the community on places that struggle with broadband internet access.
Stimulus packages that Congress has passed in recent months have provided money for local and state fiscal projects.
“We’re hoping to work with the state to again address those areas that we’ve identified that need broadband because again I think the pandemic has highlighted significantly the issues with broadband and how important broadband is,” Geouque said.
Along with infrastructure, Geouque talked about the new Valle Crucis School. The Watauga County Board of Commissioners approved an architect at a March 2 meeting, which Geouque said was a step in the right direction.
Bidding for the project would potentially start in August and close in October with, Geouque said, a bid being awarded.
“We’re looking at about roughly 18 months (of construction) weather permitting,” Geouque said.
Geouque also mentioned the county has talked to Rep. Ray Pickett (R — Blowing Rock) about the needs Watauga County has in regard to roads.
The first update Fox and Jackson discussed was the Bass Lake sidewalk project. Fox said a few years back the town was awarded a grant with the purpose to tie in federal lands to the local land around it.
“We were able to finally break ground a few weeks back as the weather was permitting and that project is moving along,” Fox said.
The sidewalk will go from Main Street at the intersection of U.S. 221 all the way out to Bass Lake.
“That’s going to be a huge asset for our folks,” Fox said. “We have a tremendous amount of folks within the town that move there to be able to get outside, especially in the right time of year and walk and enjoy the outside.”
Fox said he hopes the project will be completed sometime in July. Three new crosswalks will also come to Blowing Rock at the intersection of Main Street and U.S. 221, intersection at Sunset Drive and Main Street and then down to Chestnut Drive. Fox said the crosswalks will be digitized with buttons to push.
Fox also mentioned some future infrastructure needs Blowing Rock is looking into. One of the most challenging ones, Fox said, will be looking at Main Street water and sewer lines.
“It’s about a $5 million project just for the water and sewer alone,” Fox said. “There’s some stormwater work and we’re hoping to add even some additional sidewalks around the north end of Main Street as well as part of that so that’s definitely a need that we’re putting forth.”
Fox said the town is looking at combining some of those projects with upgrading the water plan — built in the ‘70s — and the wastewater plan — built in the ‘80s.
Jackson also asked Fox about the U.S. 321 corridor — from Greenpark Inn to Tanger Outlets — in Blowing Rock, and if there were further building opportunities or expansion opportunities of current facilities.
Fox said that area is going to be the next area of development the town looks into. He also mentioned there are conversations happening around development along that corridor.
One of the first Boone-related projects Ward mentioned was the nearly $10 million project on Howard Street that will put power lines and all overhead utilities underground, and enhance and upgrade all of the water and sewer in the downtown area.
“It will aesthetically improve the entire corridor through tree plantings and safer pedestrian sidewalks,” Ward said. “We’ll do all of this under business operations where we keep the businesses open. It will be a two year project.”
The Howard Street project also includes water and sewer upgrades, storm drainage, paving, bike lanes, crosswalks, on-street parking, mid-block crossings, streetlights, landscaping and other streetscape enhancements.
“I believe that the Howard Street project will greatly enhance the walkability, as well as the commercial viability of the downtown corridor,” Ward said. “Most communities, in order to expand their downtown, have to spread out. We’re simply going and utilizing a back street parallel to King Street, which is also very well known, and we will be able to almost double the commercial activity in our downtown just through partnerships.”
Ward said the town is spending about $200,000 a year on streetscape in the downtown area. The next phase of that will be installing mast arms at all of the traffic intersections and removing the cable hung traffic lights and enhancing those with those digital crossing bars that Wards said will allow for better pedestrian experience.
Ward also talked about stormwater runoff in the town.
“Anytime any of our commercial areas flood, that’s a negative for the commercial operation, obviously,” Ward said.
The town is looking at success stories related to stormwater runoff and seeing how it can then implement those strategies.
One of the largest infrastructure projects Ward said the town is currently working on is the replacement of the Deck Hill water tank.
“That water tank is essential to the system in that it’s our main pressure tank within the system,” Ward said. “So we’re moving forward with the replacement of that.”
He also mentioned successful grants that enhance recycling in Boone parks and along the Greenway.
The biggest project Ward said the town is working on that will tie into the entire town is an expansion of the Greenway system.
“That’s a project that will bring the Greenway from Berkshire Park back down to Dale Street on U.S. 421,” Ward said. “Our second Greenway project that we have in the works is along New River Hills that will connect the Greenway to Brookshire Park by eliminating the use of the gravel road. It will provide a separated trail from the roadway system, and bring that in. We’re looking at other ways of tying that trail system into the downtown area as well.”
Boone is also working with the N.C. Department of Transportation on a realignment of the Deerfield Road intersection at Walgreens and at the hospital. Ward also said DOT has a plan of installing a roundabout at the Poplar Grove Road intersection with U.S. 421. He did not give a timeframe of that project.
“That will slow traffic down as it comes into town and create a more pedestrian friendly atmosphere,” Ward said.