Eric Woolridge of Destination by Design presents an update on the wayfinding signage project.

BOONE — A 55-foot tower, natural slide and 300-square-foot overlook were part of a potential master plan for the county-owned Howard Knob Park as shown to a meeting of the Watauga Tourism Development Authority board on Tuesday.

The update on the master plan’s progress was made by Eric Woolridge of the firm Destination by Design, who developed the draft plan for the five-acre space.

Destination by Design was contracted by the Watauga TDA in November 2017 for $52,000 to develop a master plan for Howard Knob Park. The presentation was an update to the plan, which is still in development.

Woolridge presented the results of a community survey about Howard Knob that was answered by 263 people.

In total, around 75 percent of respondents said Howard Knob was in “fair” or “poor” condition and a combined 73 percent said the area was “important” or “very important,” which Woolridge said showed a community interest in redeveloping the area.

The draft plan divides the park into three areas: active recreation, open space and viewshed/exploration area.

Active recreation would include a natural playground, including a natural slide, regenerating rock work and timber-frame features, two kiosks, as well as regenerating dilapidated picnic areas and a “council ring” circular sitting area that could have a fire pit. Educational opportunities were also presented as a possibility at the park, although no additional parking is currently planned to be added due to space constraints.

For the open area, Woolridge proposed a 55-foot tower similar to the Flat Top Lookout Tower near the Cone Estate. The tower would give visitors a 360-degree view over the tree tops and be only a short distance from the parking lot near the overlook.

Woolridge said there’s a company that sells old fire towers that were torn down, and there’s a chance to buy one and get it installed for less than $100,000.

Also at the open area is a proposed ADA-accessible walk and overlook, plus new fencing and landscaping.

For the viewshed/exploration area, Woolridge discussed the potential for additional overlooks. The proposal’s current overlook plan is for a 350-square-foot deck that sticks out 20 feet from the edge of the cliff. Woolridge said the design was smaller than anticipated, but is cost-efficient.

Another opportunity was a hiking trail going beneath the overlooks with some opportunities for beginner and/or kids bouldering.

The board liked the ideas presented and asked about the neighboring private lands. Woolridge said that’s an issue that can likely only be solved by time in the next five to 10 years.

Watauga TDA Director Wright Tilley said they would like some assurances from Watauga County that the park would be more open during mild winter days, similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Board members also wanted assurances from the county on maintenance before putting money into the project.

Woolridge also presented an update on the TDA’s wayfinding signage program. The big development was that the North Carolina Department of Transportation has green-lighted the sign concept approved by the board, which is a green sign with a powder-coated metal sign post and arch.

The posts are going to be 14 feet tall, with the actual green sign being seven feet off the ground, seven feet tall and three feet, nine inches wide.

“We’re ready to move into construction details,” Woolridge said.

The wayfinding project contract was awarded to Destination by Design in Nov. 2017 for $65,000.

Signs for nonprofit areas, such as river access points, parks and downtown areas are fine, but signs to private businesses such as Tweetsie and The Blowing Rock won’t be allowed, with Grandfather Mountain as an exception, Tilley said.

The installation of the signs will be a multi-year, phase-in process, according to Woolridge. Currently, there are 22 locations scouted with 40 signs ready to go in, with many locations having a sign for each direction of traffic.

Tilley noted some of the locations aren’t finalized, but that’s coming up soon.

The board approved $7,600 for the Watauga County Cooperative Extension for its Choose and Cut advertising. Jim Hamilton gave a presentation on the state of Choose and Cut farms and how $2,000 of the funding will go toward an N.C. Farms App that will point out farm locations, restaurants, farmers markets and other local places of interest.

The $2,000 will be a one-time start-up cost for Watauga County and yearly maintenance will run a lot less, Hamilton said.

Hamilton believes the app will benefit Watauga, as well as Ashe and Avery indirectly.

“Boone and Blowing Rock is still kind of the hub for Choose and Cuts in Western North Carolina,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton noted that the demand is outweighing supply right now, noting the drop in Watauga County Choose and Cut farmers from 35 to 12, along with five or six who aren’t part of the cooperative. The drop was due to supply exceeding demand, the economic recession and farmers retiring, Hamilton said.

When asked how many Choose and Cut trees were sold last season, Hamilton said “15,000 easily,” and noted that number has grown from an estimated 12,000-13,000 just three years ago.

In other news from the meeting, the board voted on approving a new Rocky Knob playground at the cost of $45,608, contingent on making sure the new playground is age-appropriate.

The TDA decided to pass on voting on giving $25,000 to the “Boonies” video project by Selena Lauterer and approved $5,000 to continue sponsorship at MerleFest in 2019.

The Watauga TDA office moved on Wednesday, Aug. 22, to the Watauga County Annex Building at 331 Queen St., at the former site of the Watauga County Planning and Inspections Office.

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