Set in the beautiful Blue Ridge range of the Appalachian Mountains, the town of Boone, N.C., is rightfully receiving many accolades as a wonderful vacation destination and site for second home development. The refurbished downtown, new hotels and restaurants, expanding medical facilities and the growing campus of Appalachian State University are evidence of the financial growth of the town. Nearby ski slopes, hiking trails, rivers and lakes are ideal settings for the burgeoning recreation tourism industry.
However, these external trappings conceal the real economic conditions of a town dependent on a low-paying service economy and a handful of luxury spots for the pleasure of those with the excess capital to use them. A few facts reveal the underlying reality of the Boone economy.
According to research conducted by Data USA, a data analytics tool created by Deloitte, Datawheel, and Dr. Cesar Hidalgo of MIT, the non-student population of Boone is approximately 18,000 people. The median age of this population is 21 years old. The median household income is only $17,424. This latter number means that the real median hourly wage for a full-time worker in Boone is around $8.37. Roughly 60 percent of individuals living in Boone live in poverty. Poverty is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as the following:
• For a single individual household, an income under $12,490 per year.
• For a two-person household, the number is $16,910.
• For a three-person household, it is $21,330.
More notable is the inaccessibility of affordable housing in Boone for the median wage-worker. As of April 2019, the average rent in Boone was $653. The median property value on the other hand is currently around $268,000 and growing. To place things into perspective, half of all workers in Boone make less than $17,424 per year. To simply pay rent and nothing else, an individual must pay nearly half of their income after taxes, and in many cases, much more, to simply afford housing.
The homeownership of Boone is only 21 percent, leaving the other 79 percent of individuals in Boone renting properties from landlords. This compares to the national homeownership rate of 63.9 percent, over 40 percent larger than the homeownership rate in Boone. Even more notable, the homeownership rate across the entirety of North Carolina is at 65.4 percent.
For the vast majority of residents, Boone does not measure up to income levels in the rest of the state. At $52,000 a year, the median household income of North Carolina is roughly 200 percent more than the median household income of Boone.
Many measures of the local economy hide the ugly truth. In 2016, Watauga County’s portion of Blowing Rock alone generated over “$150 million in tourism expenditures,” according to a recent article in the Watauga Democrat written by Jeff Eason. Since Boone is the main town in the county, the value generated by tourism alone presents a picture of a healthy economy. However, this picture is grossly out of focus for most citizens. The economic stimulus produced by tourism not only fails to trickle down to most workers, but, in fact, ensures the existence of an underpaid labor class.
The reality is the labor of the working class of Boone generates mass revenue for the select few, owners and investors of the businesses that provide the necessary services of an economy largely dependent upon low-paying service sector jobs. Year after year, workers are faced with rising and inaccessible living costs while their wages stagnate. Simultaneously, the food, lodging, housing and leisure businesses target the transient tourist population, as well as the equally large student population of 18,000. Most residents are left in the dust of this so-called progress and development.
The stark reality of the Boone economy is revealed when one looks beyond the superficial to the reality of most residents.
The economic struggle of the vast majority of working class residents of Boone is covered up by the pleasant face of tourism and service industry positions in the town.
Unless the town recognizes this reality, the economic illusions of the present will continue — the sacrifice of the many for the benefits for the few.
— By Thomas