The Watauga Democrat staff asked local leaders to give readers their best predictions for the issues, projects and events that are upcoming in 2021.
Watauga County will have many projects continuing and beginning in 2021, said County Manager Deron Geouque. He said first and foremost, the county will continue assistance to AppHealthCare and Appalachian Regional Healthcare System in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. The vaccination process has begun and will continue well into the year. Modifications to county facilities have been ongoing to protect and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to the public and staff.
The opening of the new Watauga Community Recreation Center will occur once COVID-19 restrictions are reduced and the impact to the local health care system and community are lessened, Geouque said. He added hat the county is excited for the opening of the facility and it will be a welcomed event after all the community has experienced during 2020. The construction of a basketball, tennis, and pickleball courts will complement the new center and is scheduled for completion in late summer 2021.
The county recently purchased property in the Sampson area — a joint venture site with the NC Viper System — to continue the enhancement of emergency communications. The proposed tower construction is currently under federal review and is expected to begin in the spring. The project is. Additionally, a site is undergoing evaluation in the Foscoe area. Equipment has been upgraded and purchased to meet state requirements for interoperable encryption and will be installed in the coming year. All of these measures will increase efficiency and coverage of the county’s emergency communications system.
Multiple upgrades will progress through 2021 and 2022 at the Watauga County Sanitation Department, Geouque said. The implementation of an in-bound and out-bound scale along with increased signage to enhance the traffic flow in and out of the facility is ongoing. County composting will be further reviewed to determine its viability and sustainability at the landfill site.
In conjunction with exploring composting, the county recently submitted a GoldenLeaf grant to fund the High Country slaughter/chill facility for a six-county region (Ashe, Alleghany, Watauga, Avery, Caldwell and Mitchell). Watauga County is the grant applicant and was invited to submit a full proposal due Feb. 11. The byproducts from the facility would be utilized in the county’s composting operations if the analysis deems the operation feasible.
Watauga County Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman said when his office remained busy during the shut-down in spring 2020, he began to believe that people would soon seek to move to Watauga County and all of western North Carolina to escape densely populated urban areas.
“That has begun to occur sooner than I anticipated, and I believe the trend will continue into 2021 and the foreseeable future,” Furman said. “People will be seeking less dense, safer areas that also have more opportunities for outdoor activities. Many have discovered they can work effectively from home, and would like for their home, or second home, to be in such rural areas.”
Tangible evidence of that in 2020 included not only an increase in building permits, but also an increase in new residential developments, and the significant increase in sales of existing residences resulting in the lowest inventory of residences for sale in years. Furman said he is convinced the area will continue to see more of the same moving forward.
Furman added that the shut-down caused by the pandemic exposed a lack of adequate broadband throughout the county, and it remains to be problem. While he can’t predict that the situation will improve in 2021, he said he hopes for advancement in the area.
He also predicted “with confidence” that more of the Middle Fork Greenway will be built in 2021 with the incoming construction of Phases 1 and 4, particularly the section between Niley Cook Road and Tweetsie Railroad.
John Ward, the Boone town manager, said Boone will continue to focus on customer service, community safety and community resiliency in 2021. Due to COVID-19, Ward said operations may still look different.
Projects that were delayed, like the Howard Street Project and the sale of the Boone Police Department property, will resume. Other projects — like the replacement of a new $2 million water tank on Deck Hill Road, the renovation of the historic Rivers House on Rivers Street and the continued streetscape improvements to our historic downtown — will begin.
Ward said the 2020-21 budget for the town of Boone, which started July 1, was adopted during the pandemic so the start of 2021 will see a review of the financial history of the previous six months to make plans for the 2021/2022 budget.
“Trends and modeling were utilized in the preparation of the current budget and significant adjustments had to be discussed and made,” Ward said. “We expect to have to do this again. Impacts to revenues projects and capital expenses had to be delayed or cancelled but overall town operations have continued without disruption.”
Ward said town finances are currently in good shape.
A new face will start working for the town of Boone as George Santucci will take over as sustainability and special projects manager which will be charged with focusing on the town’s sustainability goals and objectives.
“While 2020 was abnormal, to say the least, 2021 has the potential to be a great year,” Ward said. “It is my hope that as we move into 2021 and as COVID-19 vaccines become available that we will see a return to more normal operations for everyone. It is my hope that the pressures that have been imposed on all of us begin to subside and that everyone remembers that we are all in this together. It is my hope that we all see the benefits of unity, cooperation and compromise in all things.”
Blowing Rock, Beech Mountain and Seven Devils
Blowing Rock Town Manager Shane Fox said 2021 will feature the start, continuation and end of numerous projects around the town.
Fox said the sidewalk to Bass Lake project is expected to be complete by the summer. The town is also working with N.C. Department of Transportation on three crosswalks, signalized crosswalks at the intersections of Sunset Drive and Main Street and U.S. 221 and Main Street, in addition to a non-signalized crosswalk at the intersection of Chestnut Drive and Main Street. Fox noted a formal bid package for the project will be introduced in January.
Fox said he was excited about a sustainability tourism plan, which was ordered by the town’s Tourism Development Authority, and should be finished by the end of the year. He said the town is working with Roger Brooks International, who has assisted hundreds of communities and small towns in branding and tourism development.
Another project that will begin construction in the spring will be landscaping around Sunset Drive, North Main Street and South Main Street. The project will be totally funded by the TDA.
A key part of the town’s development for Fox is keeping the town’s “small-town” spirit alive. Fox said that due to the amount of people who live in and visit Blowing Rock, it is important for the town to continue to improve and be able to hold everyone, while also not losing what makes the town special.
According to Beech Mountain Town Manager Robert “Bob” Pudney, a major focus for the town in 2021 will be its water system. Pudney said the town plans to continue working on their water distribution and sewer system, which has been going on for some time now.
Pudney added that while the COVID-19 pandemic was a hit to the town’s tourism numbers, those numbers have been picking up around the turn of the year. The self-proclaimed optimist said the town’s tourism is “on the right track” and real estate numbers have also been on the upswing.
Requests for comment from the town of Seven Devils were not returned by press time.
Watauga County Schools
In the coming year, Watauga County Schools is set to continue it’s planning and preparation for the construction of a new Valle Crucis School. Late last year, the Watauga Board of Education finalized its purchase of a tract of land in the Valle Crucis community known as the Hodges Property that will house the district’s newest K-8 school.
After completing a period of due diligence and viability testing on the tract of land, the board hopes to move forward with planning, design and construction of the facility. The Watauga County Board of Commissioners are currently in the process of selecting an architect for the design of the new school, according to Watuaga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott.
In addition to planning for the replacement of Valle Crucis School, the board of education is also set to continue work on the significant list of repairs and renovations at its existing facilities identified by the system’s 2017 architectural study. WCS will continue its work to improve parking lots, roofs, HVAC and security systems, Elliott said.
In the coming year, Elliott said WCS also hopes to work towards resuming normal school operations when it becomes safe to do so. To help move the district towards that goal, school officials have already implemented extensive social distancing and sanitation protocols that have helped to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in school facilities.
“School officials are constantly monitoring community spread and positive test rates so schools can operate as safely as possible,” Elliott said.
As vaccinations become more widely-available in the new year, WCS will continue to be in close cooperation with AppHealthCare, local healthcare providers and emergency management officials to train school nurses and staff in the administration of the vaccine. Watauga County Schools will also be working with AppHealthCare to use school facilities as community vaccination sites in which community members can be vaccinated in drive-through events.
Because of rising COVID-19 numbers in the state and county, Appalachian State will start the spring 2021 semester completely online until Feb. 1. After that, classes will be a mix of face-to-face, hybrid and online.
All students moving back into the residences halls will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before moving back into the dorms.
According to Appalachian State spokesperson Megan Hayes, the university has an agreement in place with AppHealthCare to serve as a distribution site for COVID-19 vaccines for students, faculty and staff. The university will not independently procure, store or distribute COVID-19 vaccines.
Pending COVID-19 vaccine distribution, face-to-face classes are set to take place in fall 2021 according to Hayes.
The university will also continue providing free COVID-19 testing events in 2021 for current students, faculty and staff. The university is also starting to test wastewater from residence halls to help identify potential COVID-19 cases. According to the Centers for Disease and Control, wastewater testing has been used as a method for early detection of other diseases like polio.
Hayes also said efforts to support student wellness will continue in 2021, especially with continuation of the pandemic.
“We continue working on ways to minimize feelings of isolation and facilitate the community connections our students need while also following safety guidelines,” Everts said in an email to the campus on Dec. 4. “Upon their return to campus, students will find outdoor campfire locations. These will allow them to gather, roast hot dogs and marshmallows, listen to music and enjoy the outdoors, while staying physically distanced, but socially connected.”
Work on other major projects will also continue in 2021. Classrooms in Sanford Hall, which is in the process of being renovated, and common areas on the first floor will open for spring 2021 classes.
Appalachian State’s next residence hall, Laurel Creek Hall, is scheduled to open in the fall with 640 dorm beds. Design is also underway for New River Hall, which will replace Justice Hall in Fall 2022, according to Hayes.
The university’s Comprehensive Diversity Plan, currently being vetted by focus groups across campus, and the universities Climate Action Plan will be shared in early 2021.
Planning for the Appalachian State innovation campus will also continue through the year. The innovative campus “will enhance the university’s curriculum while strengthening the region’s economic development,” according to Hayes.
Watauga Sheriff Len Hagaman said the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office will continue to do what it does in 2021, saying that the plan for the year is to make incremental improvements while keeping up with incidents around the county.
Hagaman said the office’s call line has gone “way up,” pointing to people being stuck at home more often due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the problems that arise from those situations.
“We’re in good shape,” Hagaman said. “Watauga’s a great place, but we’ve been inundated with people and that’s no surprise, drive around and look at the amount of traffic.”
The WCSO is looking to add a few new faces in 2021, filling out the staff to make work load management easier. The office is also looking to add record management to patrol cars in 2021, with Hagaman noting that officers have to go back to the office just to file reports, where they would prefer to get them done on the spot in the field.
According to Boone Police Chief Andy Le Beau, the Boone Police Department has undergone quite a change since the retirement of Dana Crawford in May 2020.
“We’ve done a restructure at the police department in a way that really reduces the span of control and leadership,” Le Beau said. “We’ve done this to provide greater oversight and to enhance our professionalism in all areas. We’re just continuing to work to make our police department, better and better and the service we provide to our community.”
Le Beau said that instead of having a chain of command which was dependent on just the chief and captain, the new group at the top is a chief, major and two captains.
“The process of improvement never ends,” Le Beau said of the restructure. “We always keep that as a goal before us to get better, because I just don’t believe you can stay at the status quo, you’re either moving forward or backwards.”
Le Beau said one thing the BPD continues to work toward is greater community involvement and relationships.
“2020 was a very interesting year in terms of the protests that occurred, starting in May, and also of course dealing with COVID-19 at the same time,” Le Beau said. “So, one of our real pushes that we’ve been making, and that we’re continuing to make, is developing relationships and building trust with the community. Some segments of our community feel totally comfortable with the police, and that’s great, but we’ve learned that there’s other segments of the community that didn’t feel as comfortable with the police, particularly dealing with minority communities. So we’ve had a big push, and are continuing to build relationships and developing trust with minority communities.”
Le Beau said one of the most exciting things about 2021 for him is the development of a community police committee. The committee was approved by the Boone Town Council in October and will look to build relationships, understanding and transparency between law enforcement and the community.
“My hope is by working with this community-lead group, we will really reach a lot of a lot of folks out there with what we’re doing, and help be leaders in this area that we’ve been working in,” Le Beau said.
Five projects from the N.C. Department of Transportation are slated to finish up in 2021, according to Division 11 District Engineer Ivan Dishman.
Bridge replacements on Aho Road and Tweetsie Railroad Lane are both expected to be complete in the spring. The replacement on Tweetsie Railroad Lane will also involve a realignment.
Paving projects for Hardin Road and Sampson Road are expected to be complete in 2021, according to Dishman. The Sampson Road project also includes widening the road.
While the interstate’s widening has been completed in Watauga, there is still some work left to be done on U.S. 221. Dishman said that minor reforestation needs to be conducted around U.S. 221, and any lane closures will be short lived.
According to AppalCART Director Craig Hughes, AppalCART plans to begin the installation of an electric vehicle charging station in the spring, once a grant agreement with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is approved and signed.
“We will also be submitting our order for an electrical bus when authorization from NCDEQ is received,” Hughes said.
Hughes added that AppalCART is “tentatively considering” the addition of two fixed routes to support demand if Appalachian State University is able to resume in-person classes.
The Boone Area Chamber of Commerce is placing a high priority on pandemic recovery for the businesses in Boone.
“It’s still going to take a while for tourism to return to normal with more predictable travel patterns,” said David Jackson, CEO of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce. “I think those businesses will continue to hang week to week to a degree as we move through the early part of the year. Hopefully we can see the vast majority of businesses be able to survive.”
Outside of recovery, Jackson said he expects to see some movement on the Howard Street revitalization project which would see improvements to Howard Street including making it a one-way westbound street for two blocks.
In 2021, Jackson said a number of small businesses are going to launch in grander form.
“I think we’re going to see some businesses that are going to come out of this as a direct byproduct of the time spent focusing on other things that maybe we traditionally haven’t had a chance to,” Jackson said. “We’ll see some retail turnover on King Street in the early part of the year. Nothing too major, more businesses going in than coming out.”
Depending on how Christmas week went for some local businesses, Jackson said they will keep an eye out on unemployment as some could close up the first part of the year.
Jackson said the first six months of 2021 is going to be important especially as government subsidies run out.
“That’s another group that’s been good at getting creative at administering their work. None of them have slacked off in the services they provide,” Jackson said. “The nonprofit community is a significant piece of our local economy. Hopefully we’ll get to a more normal mode of operation where they can fundraise appropriately.”
Jackson said he thinks this is a good opportunity to learn from the experience pandemic has brought and apply it to business operations moving forward.
“For people that are event centric, I think there’s a necessity for still catering to a part of our community that may not have access to things like vaccines, and to maintain our flexibility and delivering events in an alternative way, and reaching out to customers in alternative ways. I think the businesses that are invested in their online platforms, I don’t see that going away any time soon,” Jackson said.
In 2021, Jackson said another key is for the municipal governments to get along with one another. He said local governing bodies — specifically Watauga County and the Town of Boone — need to understand they play a significant role in how the community responds to the pandemic.
For the outdoor economy, Jackson sees a more regional conversation instead of just Watauga County. If the community can think more as a region, Jackson said that can benefit the county even more and help the region collectively move forward.
“I think we’re going to see that be a major part of the conversation as we’ll be adapting to travel trends that we’ll see evolve as the year goes on and how we can best position our regional assets to be a playground for people so they don’t feel like they’re going to the same place doing the same thing all the time,” Jackson said.
The new year means the start of a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic response for AppHealthCare. Jennifer Greene, director of health for AppHealthCare, said just like at the start of the pandemic in early 2020, they are still busy in early 2021.
“We’re in this exciting place of having a vaccine to deploy,” Greene said. “We’re still responding to cases. We’re doing case investigations. We’re still doing contact tracing. We’re still doing testing. Now we have a new goal of vaccinating the community as we can through the phases. It’s a challenging place, but it’s exciting.”
Greene said she is excited for more prevention work in 2021, and linking people with peer support for people who struggle with a substance use disorder. Recently, AppHealthCare has hired a team to work on infection prevention in long-term facilities across the region.
A new Community Health Needs Assessment will also be released in 2021. The assessment is updated every year, but a full one is released every three years.
“That’s going to help give some highlights to what needs are,” Greene said. “We’ve had to sort of put some things aside a little bit more this year, but that Community Health Needs Assessment is going to help us really refocus our energies. And hopefully, we will be through the majority of our response at that point.”
For the next six months, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System is planning to continue caring for COVID-19 patients as well as mobilizing efforts to vaccinate the 200,000 people in its service area, according to senior vice president for system advancement for ARHS Rob Hudspeth.
One of ARHS’ main goals is to build immunity within the community.
“What immunity can only take place by getting vaccinated,” Hudspeth said. “One of our main goals will be to get a vaccine to everyone who wants one. Over the next few months we’ll be doing all we can to educate people about the effectiveness of the vaccine and then in partnering with community stakeholders (such as the health department) to roll out rapid response vaccine clinics.”
Outside of COVID-19, Hudspeth said some of the construction projects related to Watauga Medical Center have been delayed. Plans to relocate the intensive care unit are delayed because ARHS does not have the flex space to move patients in the ICU.
“We’re still moving forward on our Central Energy Plant but the new 48-bed patient care tower — which was scheduled for fall of 2022 completion — has been rescheduled for March 2023,” Hudspeth said.
In 2021, Hudspeth said a new service ARHS is offering is related to its new Heart and Vascular Center. For the first time, ARHS will offer Percutaneous Coronary Interventions 24 hours a day, seven days a week in its catheter lab.
PCI was formerly known as angioplasty with stent is a non-surgical procedure that uses a catheter to place a stent to open up blood vessels in the heart that have been narrowed by plaque buildup, according to Hudpseth.
“Plaque build-up can lead to heart attack and loss of heart muscle,” Hudpseth said. “In 2019 ARHS completed 117 PCIs locally but transferred over 300 off the mountain. Now that the cath lab is open 24/7, 365 days each year we have the ability to treat people here without transferring them. This service will truly save lives.”
Arts and recreation
One of the primary goals of Watauga County Parks and Recreation for 2021 is to open its new facility located at 231 Complex Drive in Boone, according to its director, Stephen Poulos. This, of course, will be dependent on COVID-19 protocols going into the coming year and the ability to socially distance.
“Obviously, trying to get this recreation center opened up is front and center of our goals this year,” Poulos said. “A couple of months ago we did have a Trunk-or-Treat, and we held a Christmas Parade. We’ll probably try to roll something out here in the next few days.”
Watauga Parks and Recreation is also hoping to host recreational sports for High Country children this year, however, this will also depend on whether or not the state eases its COVID-19 restrictions this coming year.
“Again, we’re going to try to get the facility open and try to run some basketball, volleyball, baseball (and) softball, right now with everything that’s going on everything is up in the air,” Poulos said. “Any program that we can run safely that we feel comfortable doing, and that the community wants to come out to, we plan to do that. But, the big thing is to be able to do it you have to have facilities, and right now we’re somewhat limited.”
Those seeking updated information regarding Watauga County Parks and Recreation Events can call (828) 264-9511 or visit www.wataugacounty.org/App_Pages/Dept/ParksRec/home.aspx.
Moving forward, The Appalachian Theatre of the High Country hopes to continue their virtual programming such as the Boone Docs documentary films series and virtual concerts which began following the cancellation of live performances during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, the ongoing pandemic has cast a shadow of uncertainty on many in the arts world regarding upcoming public events.
“January is a pivotal planning month for performing arts groups across the country, but the uncertainty of the pandemic has really cast a monkey wrench into the machinery,” said Laura Kratt, executive director of the Appalachian Theatre. “The next big project for the theater is wading through the new pandemic funding bill which includes support for independent venues like the Appalachian Theatre to see if we are eligible and can apply.”
Currently, the Appalachian Theatre is also working to match a $100,000 challenge grant which was introduced this past December. According to past board chair John Cooper, the Appalachian Theatre is at 70-percent of its goal to match the $100,000 challenge grant that will go towards new contributions to the historic venue.
“We are confident that the remaining $30,000 will be donated by our generous patrons by the Jan. 31 deadline,” said Cooper said.
Another event includes the 5th Annual High Country Economic Kickoff Live from the Appalachian Theatre which is scheduled to take place on Jan. 28. The event will be co-hosted by the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce and the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce.
“We hope to build on the success of our recent Silver Linings event in December, which was recorded live from the Appalachian Theatre,” said David Jackson, President and CEO of the Boone Chamber.
For more information about upcoming events at the Appalachian Theatre, visit www.apptheatre.org/new-events.