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Officials: Race traffic challenge met
  • Updated

First Sgt. Sgt. Richard Aldridge of the N.C. Highway Patrol said effective traffic management was critical during NASCAR All-Star Race Week, especially Sunday when NASCAR Cup drivers competed at the North Wilkesboro Speedway for the first time since 1996.

“We all understood that it was very important to pull off a safe and efficient plan” for managing traffic, said Aldridge, supervisor of the Highway Patrol district that includes Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany counties “We knew traffic was a main point for opening the speedway and bringing NASCAR back.”

Everything indicates that the North Wilkesboro Speedway passed the traffic test with flying colors, including Sunday when the All-Star race, Dierks Bentley concert and other events drew a capacity crowd of over 25,000 people.

Aldridge said the goal was to have all parking areas managed by Speedway MotorSports, owner of the speedway, cleared of vehicles within two hours after the All-Star race ended Sunday night. He said this was accomplished in one hour and 42 minutes.

He attributed the success to thorough planning and cooperation between multiple agencies and Speedway MotorSports. Discussions among these partners about traffic began in December, he said. “I can’t say enough about the (N.C.) Department of Transportation, Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro police departments, Wilkes Sheriff’s Office and Speedway MotorSports all pulling together in the same direction.”

Aldridge said representatives of the partner entities knew traffic was a factor they could control during All-Star Race Week, an event one motorsports blog host characterized as the speedway’s audition for NASCAR.

NASCAR’s future use of the historic venue is still uncertain despite growing fan support for returning it to the Cup circuit, but Wilkesboro Police Chief Tommy Rhodes said it’s safe to say there would be little hope for this if traffic had been a mess Sunday.

Even Dale Earnhardt Jr., among the speedway’s most effective advocates, voiced concern about the potential for traffic problems during All-Star Race Week. In a podcast a few days before the week began, Earnhardt said he feared traffic would be a difficult challenge. He also acknowledged some of the steps taken to prevent this.

A key issue is lack of direct access to speedway property via a four-lane highway, which could be remedied with construction of a new exit ramp from U.S. 421. This has been discussed in the legislature.

Concerns were fueled by traffic problems when over 22,000 spectators — more than expected — turned out for CARS Tour race at the speedway on Aug. 31, 2022. Representatives of Speedway MotorSports said they learned from this experience and were determined to prevent a repeat.

Aldridge credited Speedway MotorSports for spreading out arrival of fans at the speedway by scheduling popular events at different times, including Sunday when a concert featuring country music recording star Dierks Bentley started several hours before the All-Star race began at 8 p.m.

He said the public responded well when Speedway MotorSports asked fans to buy parking passes in advance, download and use the WAZE navigation app to find their assigned parking areas and arrive early to take advantage of a “Fan Zone,” family-friendly activities, food and beverages and multiple concerts.

Jessica Fickensher of Speedway MotorSports, executive director of All-Star Race Week, said traffic was spread out by WAZE showing fans the most efficient routes to their parking spaces. “So that was really successful, something that we’ll probably replicate at other facilities now that we’ve seen it work,” she said.

Fickensher said Speedway MotorSports representatives had countless meetings with DOT, Highway Patrol and local law enforcement officials “to try to figure out the best way to make this successful not just for our fans but for the industry and for our neighbors. They’ve just jumped in and helped in any way that we could.” They also consulted with certain traffic experts.

She regularly met with representatives of the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce, Wilkes Economic Development Corp. and governments of Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro and Wilkes County to plan the Hauler Parade and Fan Fest in the Boros on May 18 and other aspects of All-Star Race Week. “I don’t think I’ve seen a hauler parade or fan fest with that much excitement and that much pride in a town in the 27 years that I’ve been with Speedway Motorsports,” she said.

Aldridge said Eddie Dew, a retired Highway Patrol trooper who served in Wilkes and still lives here, assisted planning efforts by providing written traffic plans for NASCAR Winston Cup race weekends at the speedway before they ended.

Parking provided by Speedway MotorSports included a privately-owned 20-acre field along Fishing Creek Road about a mile from the speedway and the parking lot of the former Lowe’s Companies corporate headquarters in Wilkesboro, with free shuttle service between these sites and the speedway. Combined, these had handled about 7,000 vehicles.

Aldridge said use of these two parking areas did much to reduce congestion in the area around the speedway. He said people leaving the 20-acre field on Fishing Creek Road were directed to N.C. 115 instead of in the opposite direction to Speedway Road and the speedway. He said that in 1996 and earlier, off-site parking was available only in a large field on the south side of U.S. 421 East, directly opposite the speedway on the north side. This field was used during All-Star Race Week.

After races, the outside eastbound lane was limited to traffic leaving the field. Motorists leaving the field who wanted to head west had to drive east to the Red, White and Blue exit to turn around. The access point between the field and Fishing Creek Road was only available to shuttle vehicles. People turning into field from U.S. 421 used the newly-paved shoulder of the outside eastbound lane as a turning lane to help avoid traffic problems.

There were plans to convert both of the two lanes of Speedway Road to northbound lanes for vehicles leaving parking areas adjacent to the speedway, but traffic never was heavy enough for this. Aldridge explained that a continuous flow of traffic was needed to avoid having problems with southbound vehicles,

There were about 3,500 parking spaces on-site at the speedway and about 5,000 spaces for sale by landowners along Speedway Road and Fishing Creek Road, said Thomas Vesey, director of guest services for Charlotte Motor Speedway and the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Smith on track's future with NASCAR, repaving
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The CEO of Speedway MotorSports (SMI) discussed the North Wilkesboro Speedway’s potential future with NASCAR, the issue of repaving the track and the local response to the historic venue’s comeback in a post-NASCAR All-Star Race press conference Sunday.

Marcus Smith was asked if SMI has a place for its North Wilkesboro Speedway in the company’s schedule of NASCAR events next season.

He responded by saying the question is on his mind. “It’s definitely something that we’re thinking about.”

He added, “I think that when you see a successful week of events like we’ve had here, it’s natural to think, boy, maybe we could come back here. I’m definitely thinking that way, that it’s got a lot of potential.”

Smith said he is telling people that the North Wilkesboro Speedway is going to have racing on its calendar in the very near future. “I have had great conversations with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick about what could we do here with the CARS Tour.”

Smith said he’s never been to a NASCAR week where everybody was in such a good mood and everything went as well as it did during NASCAR All-Star Week at the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

He continued, “We just started working on next year’s schedule with NASCAR, so we’ll see. I think that — not speaking to next year specifically, I do think that there’s definitely a place in the NASCAR world for North Wilkesboro Speedway, and whether it’s a special event like All-Star, maybe one day it’s a points event, I don’t know.

“I think it’s a very important place for short track racing, the late model races, the modifieds, you name it. It’s a special place. It’s like walking into a museum that’s active and living and very special for the competitors and the fans alike.”

Smith was asked if the historic tracks asphalt surface will have to be repaved before another race is held there, and if there are still thoughts of just making it dirt?

Smith said views differ on this. “I talked with Darrell Waltrip earlier before the race, and he said, ‘you’ve got to repave this thing.’ I talked with the King (Richard Petty), and he said, ‘let them race on this old pavement.’ ”

He added, “There are a lot of different ways to think about it.”

Smith said the Speedway MotorSports team did an amazing job preserving the track and keeping it together.

“They’ve learned some new things on the surface and kind of managing it, keeping it together and creating a really varied surface that I think challenges the teams. It’ll be interesting to see how it weathers, and when it needs to be repaved, we’ll repave it. I think I would lean towards not repaving until we absolutely have to.”

Smith continued, “Our goal in the next repave is to present a track where the asphalt surface is not like a parking lot surface. Our paving goal is totally different than what asphalt is actually made for in paving. But a parking lot or a street, you want it to last for a super long time and you want it to be smooth.”

He added that he doesn’t mind how long it lasts because what he really wants a track surface that allows cars to race really well.

Smith said data from Sunday’s race will be reviewed before a decision on what comes next with the surface of the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

He said thousands of people have told him how much the North Wilkesboro Speedway means to people in Wilkes County.

“I think we all kind of feel that. This is a special place and a special event, and it’s because of this rebirth opportunity. It’s never happened before that you’ve taken a sporting venue and left it for dead and it’s been revived. It’s a true Lazarus story.”

He said the North Wilkesboro Speedway is special for fans and competitors alike. “When I was having that conversation with Darrell Waltrip and the King, they asked me, now how old is this pavement again?”

When Smith said it was last repaved in 1984, they both looked at each other and said they both raced on the track.

“So, what a cool thing, for every race car driver to race on the same surface as Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip and a bunch of other legends. We want to make that available for a lot of racers that will come from all over the country to be here.”

Smith said it’s cool that NASCAR fans are truly embracing the history of the sport.

“The history of our sport is more important now than ever, and it’s the 75th year of NASCAR, so we finally have a good bit of history that people can look back to.

He said it was common for him to see and talk to three generations of fans over the weekend — grandfather, son and grandson.

Smith was asked to describe his emotions at the North Wilkesboro Speedway this weekend.

His response was, “Incredible gratitude. I am just amazed at how hard everybody here worked to make this happen.

He said Jessica Fickenscher, chief experience officer at Speedway MotorSports, and Steve Swift, the company’s vice president of operations and development, led a team of about 200 people who came to work with a real mission mindset instead of a typical clock-in, clock-out mindset as the speed was brought back to life. He said this shows in what they achieved.

“They were able to start this project in January, and it’s May right now. This place was covered in kudzu vines and poison oak and trees growing out of the grandstand less than 12 months ago. They completely built a brand-new facility out in Turn 4.”

Smith said that when he saw Gov. Roy Cooper at the speedway during the open house there May 17, Cooper said, ‘I gave it a 50/50 shot that you would actually get this done…. And I was being generous at the time.’ ”

More county funds for library sought
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The Wilkes County commissioners received a request for increased funding for the Wilkes County Library during a public hearing for the fiscal 2023-24 budget on May 16.

The library requested a $44,410 increase in its annual appropriation from the county and County Manager John Yates included a $22,253 increase. The library received $721,265 from the county in fiscal 2022-23,

Wilkes County Librarian Suzanne Moore said annual library operational expenses could go up nearly $30,000, based on rent for the Traphill branch library increasing about 7% and increases in utility and maintenance costs.

She said that without more of an increase in the allocation from county government, a portion of the library’s fund balance will be needed to cover the additional costs. Moore said these reserve funds are needed to cover emergency or other unexpected expenses.

Wilkes Library Board Chairman Arnold Lakey and Dr. Bill Davis, a county library board member, reiterated the request. Davis said that of the numerous boards he has served on, “I’ve never seen one that operates any more leanly” than the Wilkes Library Board.

He said county library staff don’t necessarily get the percentage pay increases budgeted for people who work directly for Wilkes County government.

Davis said about $30,000 of the county library’s fund balance was used to pay for raises last year. Moore said this was done so Wilkes library staff would get pay increases similar to those included in the county government budget.

He said some believe that Wilkes, with the largest library operation among the three counties (Wilkes, Ashe and Watauga) in the Appalachian library system, has failed to do its part financially for the library. This is based on commitments made several years ago, said Davis, adding it’s debatable and there have been misunderstandings.

Davis said he understood that the proposed county appropriation for Wilkes library operations included a 3% pay raise for library staff. He said the library board wanted a 6.5% pay increase for staff and will have to use fund balance money again to accomplish this if it doesn’t get more from the commissioners.

County Manager John Yates included a 5% across the board pay hike for all employees working directly under county government in the draft 2023-24 budget he presented May 1. Elmore said during a May 16 budget work session that it now is a 7% raise.

Davis said Wilkes library staff are county employees and treating them the same as other county employees would help morale and make appearing before the commissioners for more funds unnecessary.

Moore said that in Ashe, where she was county librarian before taking her current position in 2021, county government covers utility and all maintenance costs of the library. Wilkes County government only funds major library facility repairs.

Keith Elmore, chairman of the commissioners, asked Moore if she could provide information showing how Wilkes County government compares to Ashe and Watauga in support of their respective library operations. Moore said she would get that.

Davis said it will show Wilkes County government spends more on its library than Ashe or Watauga and this is a result of Wilkes being the largest of the three counties and having the largest library operation.

Also during the work session, Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew asked the commissioners to include money in the 2023-24 budget that he requested for two new patrol cars for two new school resource officers already funded in the new budget.

One new SRO position will be assigned to Millers Creek Elementary School and the other to Mulberry Elementary School. These will the first SROs assigned to specific Wilkes Elementary schools. Shew said the additional positions were requested due to high call volumes at the two schools.

The commissioners heard a request from the Wilkes Soil and Water Conservation District for transfer of money already in the district’s budget to fund a natural resource conservationist/streamflow rehabilitation specialist.

The commissioners didn’t indicate what they would do in response to any of these requests.

The commissioners agreed to hold their next budget work session at 3:30 p.m. May 31.

Multifamily housing projects in the works
  • Updated

Several multi-family housing projects are in various stages of development in Wilkes County.

Farthest along is a recently-completed 10-unit town home development, immediately behind the Wilkes Heritage Museum in downtown Wilkesboro.

Several of the 1,742-square-foot units have been sold. Each has three bedrooms. Wilkesboro-based Finley Properties is the developer, with William Buchanan of that company as listing agent. They’re advertised at $380,000 apiece. Each town home has its own parcel ID.

The development borders North Bridge Street, Court Square, Harding Hill Drive East North Street.

Finley Properties is well along with construction of a five-unit town home development called Banker’s Ridge, bordered by West North Street, North West Street and the property with the Finley Properties office building (former Bank of America building).

These two-story units will each have 2,600 square feet of floor space when completed in early fall, said a Finley Properties spokesman. Buchanan is also the listing agent for these units.

Andrew Carlton, Wilkesboro planning and community development director, said three other three other multi-family housing projects are in various pre-construction stages in the town.

One is a 66-unit apartment complex planned by Finley Properties on vacant property along Oakwoods Road, just north of the Run-In convenience store property. The development is identified as Oakwoods Apartments in mapping records.

Carlton said Wilkes Development Co. LLC, with Neil Shepherd as agent, has proposed a 60-unit apartment complex on Gateway Avenue, between U.S. 421 West and Winkler Mill Road and near Covington Way apartments. This would be income-based housing.

Carlton said developer Vikram P. Patel has proposed construction of a complex with 64 apartment units and 70 town homes on a 38-acre wooded tract near but not bordering Westover Drive on the east. On the west, he northern end of the property border Oakwoods Road. The Wilkesboro Town Council recently approved rezoning this property to a general residential designation.

The North Wilkesboro commissioners held a public hearing Wednsday night on a request for rezoning the old North Wilkesboro Elks Lodge property at 100 Finley Avenue from office and institutional highway business.

Applicants Carla Hauser, Tracey Walker and Scott Nafe requested the rezoning for building a mixed-use development with town homes, retail and office space. The old Elks Lodge building, originally a residence, would be torn down.

On May 2, the North Wilkesboro commissioners approved the annexation of an 11-acre tract off N.C. 18 North, between Dancy Street and Foster Road.

The parcel is co-owned by Bill Scantland of BTR Communities Group LLC and Barry Bush and James Faw of Targa Development. Bush said the plan is for Targa’s interest to be sold for development of an income-based apartment complex there.