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App State ups end zone project budget by $5M

BOONE — Due to what Appalachian State Board of Trustees Chair John Blackburn called a “tight construction market,” the board approved a $5 million increase in the university’s Kidd Brewer Stadium north end zone project budget on Nov. 5.

The board members met via conference call to discuss the project’s increase from $45 million to $50 million. The project — which ultimately is replacing the now-demolished Owens Field House — is proposed to be partially completed by the opening of the football season in fall 2020.

The building is proposed to open in phases, with Forte previously stating that the first and fourth floors of the facility are expected to be completed in time for the first home football game of fall 2020. The middle floors are proposed to be completed by that October.

The facility will include a conference and continuing education training space, an orthopedic clinic, dining facilities, a team store, hydrotherapy, approximately 1,000 premium (club) seats and offices for coaches and athletics staff.

Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs Paul Forte explained that in order to keep the project on track for next fall’s opening, the 43 bid packages for the project had to be bid out in stages. Three bid packages that were sent out had zero bidders and 11 packages only had one bidder, Forte said.

“I think there’s a timing issue on the end zone,” Forte said. “We knew it was being built at the top time of a robust economy. We just didn’t have the bidding interest we thought we were going to have.”

Five of the subcontractors — including tasks such as electrical HVAC, masonry and structural concrete — resulted in about $4.5 of the $5 million increase, according to Forte.

He added that the town has roughly $400 million worth of projects being built simultaneously, and for that reason the university has struggled with getting bidders. Michael Behrent, Faculty Senate chair and non-voting member of the board, asked if it were possible that App State’s own student growth was indirectly contributing to the growth of town construction and therefore causing higher costs for the university.

Forte responded by saying he talked with Boone Town Manager John Ward, and while some housing construction was for housing that could be student related, others are private developments, hotel projects or higher quality condos.

According to Blackburn, most university projects have typically experienced 10 percent overage in costs, and this increase likely follows that pattern “that sometimes happens.”

Forte added that in order to get the project completed on time, the increase needed to be approved. If the project is not promptly completed, other university revenues would have been put at risk.

“It’s unfortunate but I feel like it’s something we need to do,” Blackburn said.

The board unanimously made the approval. Forte said while the university didn’t anticipate going over budget, there were available revenues through auxiliary trust funds and athletics donations to pay for the increase. He added there would not have to be added cost or fees to students due to the increase.

The board also approved $2,538,880 for replacement of the synthetic turf at Kidd Brewer Stadium. Forte said the current field is at the end of its useful life, as it is 10 years old. Additionally, the construction of the end zone project has reshaped the layout of the stadium, which requires the modification of the turf. The hope is to also have this installed before next year’s football season, he said.

The project is funded by auxiliary trust funds and the athletics facility debt fee paid by students.

These two items will go before the Board of Governors — with the next meeting being Nov. 14-15 — for approval.

Judge denies injunction against school site purchase

BOONE — In Watauga Superior Court on Oct. 29, Superior Court Judge Susan Bray denied an Oct. 10 motion for a preliminary injunction that would’ve kept the Watauga County Board of Education from purchasing property for a new Valle Crucis School.

The lawsuit was filed against the board and each of its members in their professional capacities by Deschamps Holdings LLC, Deschamps Enterprises LLC, The Mast Farm Inn, Henri Deschamps, Marie-Henriette Deschamps and Danielle Deschamps. The Deschamps are the owners of The Mast Farm Inn on Broadstone Road in Valle Crucis — which is adjacent to the 14.4-acre tract of land that the school board has had under contract for the purpose of a new Valle Crucis School.

“We were disappointed in the results, but the litigation to prevent the school board from making an unwise decision will continue,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney, Robert Hunter of the Higgins Benjamin law firm in Greensboro.

Chris Campbell, of Campbell Shatley law firm based in Asheville, represented the school board at the Oct. 29 hearing. He said that the board’s legal position at the hearing was that the North Carolina General Assembly has given school boards the authority to determine the suitability of school property, and that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring legal action against the school board. Additionally, the board believes that it has “conducted significant due diligence in making a careful decision about the property,” Campbell said.

He added that the possible impact of locating a school adjacent to a local business is “speculative” and is not a legal issue for the courts.

The Mast Farm Inn stated that while it is disappointed that the court did not enjoin the school board from pursuing the "troublesome site" for the school, it looks forward to presenting a case to a jury.

"Hopefully the school board will reach the right conclusion and not spend over a million dollars on this flood plain property," the Mast Farm Inn said in a statement. "If not, we will continue to press forward to protect The Mast Farm Inn, the Valle Crucis Historic District and our community.”

The board’s contract on the tract of land — which has been referred to as the Hodges property — includes a due diligence period through Nov. 15. The 150-day due diligence period has included steps such as septic/soil scientist evaluation, land surveys, an environmental assessment, an archaeological assessment, wetland evaluation, conceptual layout plans and well drilling.

Campbell said the board is continuing with its due diligence to determine if the Hodges property is suitable for a new Valle Crucis School.

“The lawsuit does not affect the board’s focus on determining the feasibility of the property for a new school,” Campbell said.

As Bray has not filed her final order, Campbell declined to comment further on the matter. Hunter also stated he did not to want to comment publicly about pending cases. Hunter added that he had no comment on the issue of any likelihood of an appeal to Bray’s decision.

“In my view, we have 30 days in which to appeal the order or we can wait until the entire case is over,” Hunter said.

At the Oct. 22 public meeting about the potential placement of a new school, Watauga Board of Education Chair Ron Henries stated that the board would revisit the issue of the property at its Nov. 4 meeting. This meeting has been rescheduled for Nov. 7.

Town races decided at polls
Full results at wataugademocrat.com

BOONE — Voting in the 2019 Watauga County municipal elections was relatively low on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 5, according to Watauga County Board of Elections Director Matthew Snyder.

The 11 sites in Boone, Blowing Rock, Seven Devils and Beech Mountain all opened up on time at 6:30 a.m., Snyder said, and there were no major problems as of 3:30 p.m.

At the 4 p.m. check, 782 votes, including two transfer ballots from other counties, were cast in Watauga County on Election Day.

The popular precincts, as of 2 p.m., were Blowing Rock with 290 voters and Beech Mountain with 144 voters. Boone 1 had 81 people, Boone 2 had 47 people, Watauga (Seven Devils) counted 51 people, New River 3 had 61 voters, New River 1 had 41 people and all other precincts were below 30 people. Brushy Fork precinct recorded three people and Blue Ridge precinct had 10 voting as of 2 p.m.

Snyder said the numbers so far were in line with the 2017 municipal elections, with the bigger turnouts in Blowing Rock, Beech Mountain and Seven Devils compared to Boone.

The busiest time appeared to be the lunchtime hour, Snyder said, noting an uptick in voting at all sites.

Full results were to be posted at www.wataugademocrat.com on Tuesday night.

Fewer than 900 take part in early voting

The total of 896 early voters in Watauga County was fewer than expected, according to Watauga County Board of Elections Director Matthew Snyder.

“We’re glad to see everything went very smoothly on our end,” Snyder said. “Both sites were able to be up and running (and) provide lots of hours for people to vote.”

Out of the 896 voters, 249 came at the Watauga County Administration Building on West King Street. The site was open Oct. 16-18, Oct. 21-25 and Oct. 28 through Nov. 1 – a total of 13 days – from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

More than 72.2 percent of the voters, 647 in total, voted at the Appalachian State University Plemmons Student Union – open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 21-25 and Oct. 28 through Nov. 1.

The busiest day for both sites was the final day, Friday, Nov. 1. A total of 105 people voted at the student union, while 40 people voted at the administration building. The lowest daily turnout for the student union was 42 people on Thursday, Oct. 24, and was eight people for the admin building on Monday, Oct. 21.

A vast majority of the early voters, 832 of the 896, voted in the Boone municipal race. A total of 38 early voters were from Blowing Rock, 11 were from Seven Devils and 15 from Beech Mountain.

Snyder said that typically, Boone voters prefer to vote early and don’t vote as much on Election Day. In the other three municipalities, voters prefer Election Day itself to vote, Snyder said, even in years where there’s early voting available locally.

AppalCART sets single-day ridership record Oct. 31
Boone-based bus service on track for record 2 million riders in 2019-20

BOONE — AppalCART, Boone’s free public transportation system, recorded a new record of single-day ridership on Thursday, Oct. 31, with more than 18,000 passengers, according to the organization.

AppalCART Director Craig Hughes said that the record number of riders came due to what he called a “perfect storm.”

“We have higher ridership than we have had in the past,” Hughes said. “More people are taking advantage of our service. And we had a unique situation with a football game on Thursday.”

The Appalachian State football game versus Georgia Southern on the night of Oct. 31 meant that many students and visitors used AppalCART to go to the game, go out to eat and/or go home afterward, Hughes said.

For AppalCART, the previous biggest single day was on Aug. 21, when 15,500 people rode an AppalCART bus.

As Hughes mentioned, the single-day records mirror an uptick in overall ridership for AppalCART, which he said is up 12 percent so far in its 2019-20 fiscal year (July 1 to June 30), with an average of more than 13,000 riders per day and more than 40 riders per hour.

“I think a lot of it is convenience; there are several little factors that add up to it,” Hughes said. “During the workday, we’ve got buses going by stops every 10 minutes in some locations, or 15 minutes for others. If you want to ride a bus, you don’t have to wait very long.”

Hughes noted other factors such as students saving money on not buying an Appalachian State University parking pass and an increase of locals for the higher number of riders.

At its current rate, AppalCART is on pace to carry over 2 million passengers this fiscal year, which would break its 2015-16 record of 1.84 million riders.

“I don’t think we expected that big of a jump,” Hughes said. “We did some tweaks to make things better … it’s been a pleasant surprise.”

From 2005 to 2016, AppalCART usage skyrocketed from less than 700,000 total riders in 2004-05 – the last fiscal year that AppalCART charged a fare for riders – to more than 1.8 million total riders a decade later. Annual total ridership has stayed around that 1.8 million mark in the last four years.

The ridership increase comes in the second fiscal year after major route overhauls were completed at the onset of the 2018-19 fiscal year. According to Hughes, the route changes made in spring and summer 2018 were designed to make sure prospective riders, mainly ASU students, didn’t have to wait long, as certain routes were often filling up before reaching campus.

One big change in 2019-20 is the implementation of the new “Night Owl” routes. Currently, four routes – Gold, Pop 105 and modified versions of Orange and Express – run from 10 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. on Thursday and Friday nights and from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. on Saturday nights.

So far, Hughes said the ridership numbers are both good and bad.

“Portions of it are doing very well,” Hughes said. “Express and Pop (105 routes) are doing very well with around 20 trips per hour. For late night, that’s pretty good. The other ones (Orange and Gold) are at 12-13 (trips) per hour.”

Hughes said that AppalCART and ASU, which is the primary funder of the Night Owl routes, will look over the data and determine whether to keep the Orange Route going, but said the Gold Route will stay for now. The upcoming cold, winter nights could see Night Owl use increase, Hughes said.

“If it drops to 10 trips per hour, we’ll have to cut it out as it’s not a good use of resources,” Hughes said. “We’ll get with our (ASU) partners to see what to do.”