The Watauga Democrat staff asked local leaders to give readers their best predictions for the issues, projects and events that are upcoming in 2019.
Water, sustainability and beautification will be three themes for the town of Boone in 2019.
The town’s new 4-million-gallon-per-day water intake on the South Fork New River could reach substantial completion as early as this month. But coming down the pipe with the additional water supply are additional planning decisions: The town’s Water Use Committee, which includes the full Boone Town Council, is continuing to develop policy recommendations for any water allocations that would be approved outside of town limits.
With a soggy 2018 setting rainfall records, stormwater management will loom large in the new year, as any solutions to the town’s flooding and drainage issues are likely to be costly and complicated, involving multiple parties. Ideas floated in 2018 included a stormwater tax district to raise revenues for improvements as well as a potential flood study in cooperation with the Army Corps of Engineers.
“We are ... placing major emphasis on the town council goal of identifying partners and working with them on stormwater mitigation,” Boone Town Manager John Ward said.
One future improvement could include the daylighting of Boone Creek in the area of Appalachian State University, where the stream moves in and out of culverts and low-lying academic buildings are often flooded. The town is working with Appalachian State University, New River Conservancy and the UNC School of Government Development Finance Initiative to identify ways to partner on a project that could include daylighting of Boone Creek and a parking deck in the area of the Peacock parking lot on Rivers Street. Both are concepts proposed in the university’s Master Plan 2025, which was adopted in 2017.
Ward indicated that significant progress is on the horizon for two downtown improvement projects. With construction documents nearly complete, the long-awaited Howard Street improvement project, which includes converting traffic to one-way westbound from Appalachian to Water Street and placing utility lines underground, could go out to bid by mid-2019. But first the town will have to secure financing for the $9 million to $12 million project.
And the acceleration of King Street streetscape improvements is also part of the 2019 forecast.
“We will be presenting a plan during the budget process of how to utilize funds that have been saved … (to direct) town staff and contractors to go ahead and complete major sections of the downtown streetscape project,” said Ward.
The town’s Sustainability, Economics and Environment Committee continues work on an Energy Action Plan to help the town achieve its goal of converting all town facilities and services to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2050.
“I also think we will see some movement in the area in the discussions we have had on renewable energy and how we can partner with New River Light and Power to make that a reality,” added Ward.
The Watauga County Community Recreation Center and working with Watauga County Schools for long-range facilities planning are the two major projects for the county going into 2019, according to County Manager Deron Geouque.
Geouque called the school long-range plan a “major task” for Watauga County Commissioners to tackle alongside the Watauga County Board of Education. The county will likely also be looking at a long-range plan for county buildings, Geouque added.
The county isn’t expecting any major personnel changes for the new year, as it hired a new finance director, new emergency services director and a new operation service director in the sanitation department in 2018.
Geouque said the county still hopes the state will continue to review and modify the existing memorandum of understanding the county was required to enter into with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and make changes to the mandates that would lessen the impact on the local social services department.
Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman said he isn’t sure if he expects residential or commercial developments to pick up in the new year, as “things have been slow for a while.” However, he expected single-family development permits to continue to increase.
“I think we’ll have a healthy single-family housing market,” Furman said. “That’s a good economic indicator.”
The Guy Ford River access and the Middle Fork Greenway will both see progress in 2019. Construction of sections one and four of the Middle Fork Greenway is expected to begin by the summer. Once these two sections are built, half of the greenway will be complete, Furman said.
Furman said there will hopefully be movement on economic development initiatives, such as a co-working space potentially in the works by High Country Local First.
Lastly, Furman said he would really like to see more widespread broadband in rural areas of the county. Areas of the county may have decent coverage, but not necessarily with adequate broadband.
“That is a detriment both towards residential and commercial development,” Furman said. “It’s now essentially a utility that’s expected and required.”
Beech Mountain, Seven Devils and Blowing Rock
On Beech Mountain, Town Manager Tim Holloman says that a lot of exciting projects are going on in the town in 2019.
Projects include a 500-foot streetscape redesign, raising money for the Shane Park project, the town’s first new public works building since 1981, $3 million in upgrades to water and sewer lines, as well as continuing the comprehensive plan process that was started in March 2018.
“We’re evaluating what our plan calls for, to see if we’re looking for the same goals,” Holloman said.
The town will take “significant steps” on the Watauga River intake plan in 2019 as the it seeks to add an alternate source of drinking water to back up Buckeye Lake in case of an emergency.
In Seven Devils, Town Manager Debbie Powers says the town will finish expanding the parking lot for Otter Falls and will plan all of the 2019 activities in February, including music on the lawn, the Arbor Day celebration, Light the Night and others.
“Our town council focuses on more green spaces, which includes trails,” Powers said. “We’re trying to attract more residents and potential buyers who like the trails.”
The focus on recreation will mean applying for more grants, Powers said, with Seven Devils being interested in funding its Peak Mountain Trail project.
For the first time in several years, the major focus of Blowing Rock going into a calendar year isn’t on U.S. 321.
The town of Blowing Rock will see a period of transition in 2019 as the search for a new town manager continues. Major projects such as the Sunset Drive Streetscape and the Inn on Cornish will be noticeable downtown, as well as the continued work in Memorial Park to protect the newly planted trees.
Recreation will be a focus in Blowing Rock going into 2019, with the Parks and Rec Master Plan passed in November. Improvements to Memorial Park, Davant Field, Broyhill Park and many more facilities are likely to be considered.
Watauga County Schools
Big issues ahead for the Watauga County Schools district start with facility needs planning, Superintendent Scott Elliott said. A recent facilities study outlined more than $100 million worth of school needs — including replacement of two elementary schools. He said the school system is actively searching for land and options to consider for new school construction, as well as looking at schools with significant renovation needs.
A committee of Watauga Board of Education members and Watauga County Commissioners will be working together during the coming year to create a plan to address capital needs.
Other routine maintenance and facility work WCS staff are planned to do in 2019 include installing new wood gym floors at Bethel, Mabel and Blowing Rock; improving parking lots and buildings roofs; and expanding the number of security cameras at all of the schools.
WCS will also be entering into year two of a four-year phase-in of K-3 class size mandates. The district will continue to add additional classes in these grades as well as hire additional teachers. Elliott said he doesn’t currently anticipate needing additional mobile units to accommodate this mandate, but larger schools — such as Hardin Park and Parkway — could continue to have space limitations and needs.
The schools also hope to continue implementing salary adjustments for hourly employees. The last two years, WCS has improved the salary of employees in its technology and maintenance departments. It hopes to continue to do so in 2019 for other employees such as bus drivers and custodians.
Several programs will likely see expansions in the coming year. The district plans to grow its homeschool dual enrollment program at the high school by trying to streamline the process for the high school to evaluate homeschool transcripts and grant credits. The high school will also potentially see growth by allowing students in the community college dual enrollment program to take classes in emergency management and criminal justice, Elliott said.
An initiative Elliott hopes to see in 2019 is the start of a state pilot program that is intended to reduce the number of state mandated end-of-grade exams. The end-of-grade exams would be replaced with a series of shorter assessments that are given throughout the school year. He said the state has applied to the federal government for the pilot, and Watauga could potentially be chosen if the pilot is granted.
WCS will continue its Green School initiatives. The district currently has two Green schools and hopes to add more. To continue this initiative, Cove Creek School is planned to install a solar array in the spring. Elliott said the district plans to continue to expand outdoor education and hands-on science education programs.
Appalachian State University
At no time in recent memory has Appalachian State not had a capital project in the works. But last year, planning and construction for major projects seemed to kick into high gear, and they’re moving full throttle into 2019.
Last year, Appalachian selected Georgia-based RISE to develop on-campus housing in a public-private partnership. The $191 million project will include four residential buildings with approximately 2,100 beds, a parking deck with about 470 spaces and 340 existing surface parking spaces.
The first phase of the project is expected to begin at the former Winkler dorm site in February 2019, with 912 beds ready for occupancy in the fall of 2020. The development of the entire project is planned in three phases, with completion dates of fall 2020, fall 2021 and fall 2022. The parking deck could be ready by fall 2019, according to ASU.
Also under way is the $43 million Kidd Brewer Stadium North End Zone project, which will begin with demolition of the Owens Field House in early 2019. The 80,000- to 100,000-square-foot facility will include approximately 1,000 club seats, offices for coaches and athletics staff, athletic training, meeting and training space, an orthopedic clinic, dining facilities, a team store and more. The project is targeting a fall 2020 opening.
An $18 million renovation of Sanford Hall, one of ASU’s most-used academic buildings, is slated to begin in May 2019 and continue until fall 2020.
The university will seek full approval from the UNC system Board of Governors in March 2019 to move forward with the $11.8 million construction of competition and training facilities for the university’s track and field, tennis and softball programs at the “Appalachian 105” site — the former Watauga High School campus. Meanwhile, the plans for the remaining portion of the property have yet to be finalized. A hotel and conference center supporting athletic events and seminars, housing, parking, collaborative academic spaces and mixed-use projects were among the possibilities, according to October meeting materials.
And in early 2019, a feasibility study is due for a Conservatory for Biodiversity Education and Research at the old Broyhill Inn and Conference Center site.
Faculty pay discussions could continue in 2019, as the Faculty Senate late last year raised concerns over no merit-based pay increases this academic year despite the university having the authority to award them. University leaders said available funding was needed for other uses, including new hires.
In athletics, Mountaineer football fans accustomed to years of winning seasons will be anxious to see how new head coach Eliah Drinkwitz leads App State in 2019.
Going into 2019, with several development projects set to open or continue with construction, the opportunities to thrive locally are increasing, some say.
“I see 2019 as the beginning of a two-to-three year period of pretty good commercial development,” said David Jackson, president of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of the talk has been about 2019 being the start of a window of massive development in our community.”
The opening of the 50,000-square-foot Hobby Lobby in Boone Mall on Dec. 31 comes after a time where the mall was having trouble filling store space. Adding one of the fastest-growing craft retailers in the country could be a boost for the area.
Downtown, the long-anticipated Horton Hotel will open in early 2019 and work will continue on the Appalachian Theatre, which is set for a 2019 opening after more than a decade of being closed. Work will continue on Forum on East King and the King and College in 2019.
Other downtown projects, such as Rivers Walk and the former Southern States property at the intersection of Rivers Street and South Water Street, are in development.
The 92-room TownePlace Suites of Marriott project at the corner of Blowing Rock Road and Meadowview Drive in the south of Boone is hoped to be completed in 2019, according to previous statements by Raken Shah of Milan Estate LLC, the developer of the project.
Skyline Terrace in east Boone will continue development on new apartment spaces designed for young professionals, with developer Randy Dixon eying summer 2019.
Despite the hiccups of Hurricane Florence and a late peak leaf season in 2018, Watauga County occupancy tax figures continues to trend upward.
Jackson sees skill trades being a big part of the area’s immediate future with the Appalachian State University’s west campus four-year residence hall project and the Owens Field House replacement project.
“Long term, it’ll really benefit and infuse more talent into the construction industry,” Jackson said.
Jackson is interested in how the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 will affect the nonprofit business sector. The legislation favors more standard deductions while limiting itemized deductions, such as write-offs for charitable donations. Over 200 nonprofits are registered in Watauga County alone, Jackson said, and “tens of millions” of dollars go through those nonprofits, even taking out Samaritan’s Purse.
“I don’t get the sense that it’s a thing of immediate concern, rather everyone wants to (see) a year snapshot and where we are trending,” Jackson said.
Staffing changes and capital needs are two areas of focus for the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office going into 2019.
Sheriff Len Hagaman said the office will experience some command staff changes after the retirement of three employees during the last two years. WCSO plans to welcome two new school resource officers on Jan. 2 — one hired from within and another coming from the security department of a local organization.
When it comes to capital needs, Hagaman said WCSO has aging equipment that can no longer be repaired by replacing parts, including fingerprint machine, a commercial washer at the jail and a metal detector at the courthouse.
Hagaman said that WCSO hopes to work with Blowing Rock Police to acquire a mobile Computer Aided Dispatch system, which he said would cut down on radio conversation during an incident and would lead to more efficient emergency response. He added that all of the area law enforcement agencies have mobile CAD with the exception of WCSO and Blowing Rock Police.
WCSO will also explore the acquisition of an evidence bar scanning system and a system to improve notifications to staff about their monitoring rounds and inmate medications, Hagaman said.
“We’re just trying to reduce the amount of time that we’re doing things the old-fashioned way,” Hagaman said.
Local agencies often aid each other when responding to incidents in the area, and going into the new year, a task force is in the works among local law enforcement agencies for larger criminal investigations, Hagaman said.
Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford said building up the department’s personnel will be the focus of his department going into 2019. BPD officers leaving the department for better paying jobs and a shortage of officers nationwide has caused turnover issues in the department over the years.
“With so many young officers, it takes up so much of our budget just to train new officers,” Crawford said. “When we lose an officer, we have invested … time and money trying to get them equipped, trained and up to speed. When that person leaves us, then we have to start all over again. It’s costing us about double their salary to replace them.”
He added that the department plans to work with the town of Boone to address officer pay in order to retain its staff.
Boone Police plans to schedule several “Coffee with a Cop” events in various locations in the area. It also plans to continue its efforts helping with efforts at the Hunger and Health Coalition and North Carolina Special Olympics.
Crawford didn’t foresee any large capital projects in 2019 other than replacing patrol cars and continuing to upgrade the radio system.
Arts and Recreation
The Watauga County Community Recreation Center project broke ground Oct. 16 at the corner of Hunting Hills Lane and State Farm Road in Boone, and is preparing for a year of construction in 2019.
“It’ll be new mountains formed,” said Thomas Heller, Harper General Contractors supervisor, referring to the mountain ridge shape that the rec center roofline will mimic.
Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque said that residents will see the rec center start to “take shape” around spring or summer 2019. Geouque said the architects at Clark Nexsen on the project expect to be in the building by spring 2020.
According to the Harper General Contractors’ project timeline, the rec center foundation will be complete with steel coming in afterward and pool demolition next. By the end of 2019, the rec center will aim to begin constructing the new pool and starting on interior finishes.
After the remnants of Hurricane Florence in September and Hurricane Michael in October and more than one foot of snow in a 36-hour period in December, Appalachian Theatre of the High Country has had to “adjust to accommodate those weather events,” Executive Director Laura Kratt said.
The ATHC is aiming for a late summer 2019 opening, but is preparing to work closely with Vannoy Construction to adjust for any more inclement weather.
“I know Vannoy (Construction) worked a lot of weekends and are still pushing forward,” Kratt said. “We are anticipating that weather will slow us down at times, but it will also push us forward.”
For now, Kratt and the rest of ATHC are still looking forward to the theater’s reopening. Kratt has attended conferences, met with agents and artists and has reached out to other regional theaters to find people and shows that could be of interest to the High Country.
“We want to do programs that complement and expand on the cultural creative offerings of the community,” Kratt said.
With U.S. 321 south of Blowing Rock completed and U.S. 321/421 west of Boone still years away from shovels in ground, focus on Watauga roads in 2019 will be on N.C. 105 and U.S. 221 in Deep Gap.
Two different N.C. 105 projects will continue development in 2019. The “Superstreet” project, which would add a center median and limit left turns along the business corridor, was met with fierce resistance from business owners, town of Boone and Watauga County officials in October and November 2018. Currently, the NCDOT and its consultant is in the process of collecting all the public comments and will meet with local officials in January, possibly with changes.
“We’ll meet, go through it and say ‘yeah, that’s doable, no that’s not,’” said Mike Pettyjohn NCDOT Division 11 engineer.
A $49.3 million widening project on N.C. 105 South is planned going to Foscoe. The first stage will be replacing the Watauga River bridge of N.C. 105, with right-of-way acquisition planned to begin in September 2019, Pettyjohn said.
The widening portion of the N.C. 105 South project is slated to start with property acquisition in 2023 and construction in 2025.
Work on the U.S. 221 widening in eastern Watauga County continues. The $25.6 million section from U.S. 421 intersection to the Ashe County border, a distance of 2.8 miles, is “a bit ahead of schedule,” Pettyjohn said.
Section A, along with Section B, are planned for a November 2020 opening. The project is planned for a December 2020 completion.
In Boone, improvements from Bamboo Road to Wilson Ridge Road and Deerfield Road will have right-of-way planning started in 2019 and contract work starting in 2020, Petttyjohn said. The projects will cost a combined $6.55 million.
A replacement bridge at Hunting Hills Lane will start in 2019 and go into 2020 at a cost of $1.9 million, Pettyjohn noted.
Anna Oakes, Kayla Lasure, Thomas Sherrill and Sydney Wolford contributed to this story.