Funding is in place for repaving and other maintenance on 75 contiguous miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Wilkes and nearby counties and also for replacing a 550-foot-long Parkway bridge in Laurel Springs, said Tracy Swartout, new superintendent of the linear national park.
It’s the initial work in a five-year plan for addressing a backlog of maintenance issues through the Great American Outdoor Act’s Legacy Restoration Fund, which Swartout called “a once in a generation investment to bring Parkway assets back to a good condition.” The fund is financing work at numerous national parks.
Swartout discussed this backlog and other topics during an interview Thursday at the historic Bluffs Restaurant in Doughton Park, which is along the Parkway in Alleghany County. She was among speakers at an event that day commemorating the restaurant’s reopening.
She defined the backlog as maintenance work deferred for more than a year and said it has grown larger over time, partly due to lack of funding of operational budgets for maintaining assets like roads, trails, utilities and water and wastewater systems and structures that include buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Most of those assets need some work…. As someone who has been coming to the Blue Ridge Parkway her entire life, I can see it when I look around. I have the same response that most visitors do,” said Swartout. She was born and raised in Columbia, S.C., and frequently visited the Parkway while growing up and as a young adult.
Repaving and other work is set to start next year on the 75-mile section of the Parkway in Wilkes, Alleghany, Ashe, Watauga and Avery counties. Work to replace the Laurel Fork bridge in the Ashe portion of Laurel Springs starts then also. The Great American Outdoor Act, funded with payments for federal land leased for oil and gas drilling, was approved by Congress last year.
Swartout said work on the 75 miles of the Parkway, a roughly $123 million project, will be from Milepost 229.6 (just south of U.S. 21) to Milepost 305.1 (just south of the southern end of the Linn Cove Viaduct).
The existing bridge, built in 1939 and refurbished in 1985, will be replaced with a new segmental concrete bridge at an estimated cost of $30 million. Traffic will be detoured during construction.
The current structure is a five-span, two-girder steel bridge with a cast-in-place concrete deck. As of 2020, the Federal Highway Administration estimated it had about four years of service life left. Per highway administration recommendations, Parkway staff close the bridge during major wind events since wind is a critical load factor.
Swartout said additional Parkway projects were submitted for approval on a schedule through 2025, but can’t be identified until they’re okayed for funding as part of the five-year plan. She said projects approved for funding in fiscal 2022 should be known by the end of this summer or this fall.
She said National Park Service (NPS) and Parkway operational budgets have stayed relatively flat the last couple of decades. President Biden’s proposed budget has about a 10% increase for NPS operational funding, but Swartout doesn’t yet know what that would mean for the Parkway.
Swartout has been an NPS employee for 21 years, serving as deputy superintendent at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington prior to becoming the Parkway’s first female superintendent in May. Her nine years at Mount Rainier included stints as acting superintendent and acting deputy regional director for park service resource management.
While superintendent for Congaree National Park in South Carolina earlier, Swartout worked closely with the Congaree friends group and other community partners.
Swartout attended Montreat College near Black Mountain for a year before transferring to the University of South Carolina to complete requirements for an undergraduate degree in geography.
She also has a master’s degree in environmental studies with an emphasis in natural resources from the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “I have a natural resources background so I do care a lot about the Parkway’s natural and cultural resources,” Swartout said.
“I also have a lot of experience with infrastructure, including handling heavy visitation during major infrastructure work.” The Parkway was the nation’s most visited national park in 2020.
Swartout said she’ll spend a lot of time in communities along the Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia, which she said will include telling people what the NPS does and why it and the Parkway are important. She noted that in 2020, Parkway visitor spending helped support over 15,000 jobs and had an economic impact of well over $1.5 billion.
“I’m really committed to partnering with the community and I’m from this area. Investing in relationships is really important to me.” She said she’ll also emphasize taking care of Parkway employees and making the Parkway a good place to work, as well as being inclusive and diverse with hiring practices.
Swartout lives in Asheville, where the Parkway is headquartered, with her husband and their two young children.
Restoration and reopening of the historic Bluffs Restaurant in Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway was heralded as a model of success through collaboration during an event Thursday.
Nearly $1 million was raised to renovate the Doughton Park restaurant, including $300,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), $350,000 from the N.C. legislature and about $300,000 from over 500 people in fundraising led by the nonprofit Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
ARC Co-Chairman Gayle Manchin and Parkway Superintendent Tracy Swartout emphasized the importance of partnerships for the public good in their remarks at the event Thursday.
Manchin said reopening the Bluffs and partner entities and individuals who made it possible reflect what the ARC is all about. She said it’s notable that the effort retained an area’s history while looking ahead by promoting the rippling economic impact of visitors.
“So it’s that dual role of preserving the past and those memories that were created, but now you’re creating an impact to allow the next generation to create new memories,” said Manchin, born in Asheville and raised in Beckley, W.Va.
“That’s a lot of what the ARC tries to do through being a partner. What is so important to the ARC is that local people come together. They know the problems and they look for the solutions and get people to buy in and invest.”
Manchin added, “We truly are at a very opportune time for our country and certainly for the ARC. We have a president who understands rural America and understands that it takes a large investment to maintain and improve quality of life there and he does this with his budget.”
She said she recently learned that West Virginia’s New River begins in North Carolina. While on a two-day tour of sites in northwestern North Carolina last week, she thanked people in the Ashe County town of Lansing for looking after headwaters of the river that is the focal point of the recently-created New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. It’s West Virginia’s first national park.
Swartout said the event Thursday represented a National Park Service (NPS) tradition of strong partnerships. “We couldn’t do what we do” without organizations like the ARC and Parkway Foundation, she said.
The restaurant has been operated since late May by Boone-based Heritage Dining and Events LLC under a sublease from the Parkway Foundation, which leases the building from the Parkway. Heritage Dining and Events is led by Sharon Pinney and chef John Gamradt.
Swartout cited the popularity of Doughton Park and the Bluffs Restaurant as a Parkway destination over the years. “It really exemplifies…. that you drive awhile, stop awhile, eat a little cobbler awhile. And that’s the kind of experience that has drawn not just my family but lots of families for generations — and has connected the generations.”
Jim McCleskey, director of the State of North Carolina’s Washington office and representing Gov. Roy Cooper, said the Bluffs effort shows “that public investment for public purpose for public benefit brings private opportunity for generations to come — and they are renewable opportunities. This is a new, old place and we’re so proud to be part of the return of the Bluffs as a place for folks to stop and enjoy.”
He said he was told that Rep. Robert L. “Farmer Bob” Doughton from nearby Laurel Springs, chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee from 1933-1947 and 1949-1953, pledged to secure support among conservative Southern legislators for passage of Social Security and New Deal programs in the 1930s if the Parkway went through northwestern North Carolina.
The Parkway took the route Doughton wanted. “That’s an example of parochial interests serving national purposes,” said McCleskey. The 7,000-acres Bluffs Park, in Alleghany and Wilkes counties, was renamed Doughton Park in honor of the congressman in 1952.
When McCleskey introduced Manchin, he noted that her husband, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, is in a position “to get things done the way they need to get done in our United States Senate.” Manchin is a conservative Democrat known for bipartisanship.
McCleskey recognized representatives of Sen. Richard Burr and Sen. Thom Tillis at the event and said Burr and Tillis, both North Carolina Republicans, are part of a non-partisan group with Manchin pushing forward legislation for infrastructure investments that will serve public purposes and create private opportunities now and for decades to come.
Alfred Adams of Winston-Salem, chairman of the Parkway Foundation board, thanked partner entities involved in reopening the restaurant. Adams said the fact that over 500 people contributed money for the reopening “symbolizes the importance of bringing the Bluffs back to life to our constituents.”
The Bluffs Restaurant was the first restaurant on the Parkway when it opened in 1949. Known for its country ham biscuits, fried chicken, berry cobblers and more, the Bluffs
became a favorite dining spot for Parkway travelers and people in Wilkes and Alleghany counties and elsewhere nearby before it closed after no one stepped up to take over a NPS concessioner contract for operating the eatery when it expired in 2010.
A mold problem and asbestos were found in the building. Remediation of the mold issue was completed in 2016, the asbestos was removed and a new roof was installed in 2018.
Atriax Group of Hickory was general contractor to complete the renovations, but the onsite work was done by Canter Construction Co. in Wilkesboro as a subcontractor. The Wilkes company was represented at the event Thursday by Ken and Carol Canter and their son and daughter-in-law, Richard and Carol Canter. Richard Canter said their work started in March 2020 and continued through the COVID-19 pandemic.
New interior fixtures, design upgrades and other work replicates the original look of the restaurant, with the interior design following guidelines of the NPS and N.C. Historic Preservation Office. New kitchen equipment, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical fixtures were installed to meet current safety standards. It has new furniture and communication equipment. Most of the overhead lights are original.
Rita Larkin, Parkway Foundation communications director, said plans for the Bluffs Lodge in Doughton Park remain uncertain. The 24-room motel lacks air conditioning and certain other modern amenities and has been closed for several years. It opened in 1949.
The Ronda Board of Commissioners learned that increased popularity of the Yadkin River for recreation has also made it harder for emergency personnel to conduct rescues on the river.
Ronda Fire Chief Bruce Byrd told the Ronda board in a work session Thursday night that emergency personnel have trouble reaching the boat ramp on the Yadkin at the Ronda Park when the parking lot there is packed with vehicles of people on the river.
“It’s an ongoing issue in the summer. You just can’t get into that parking lot with big rescue vehicles on Saturdays,” said Byrd.
The Ronda Park river access is used by people wanting to exit the Yadkin after starting trips in North Wilkesoro or Roaring River and also by people entering the river for trips from Ronda to Elkin.
The Ronda board discussed the possibility of building a boat ramp elsewhere on the Yadkin in town and making it available only to emergency personnel. Commissioner Sandra Simmons indicated willingness to make property she owns available for this as long as it only is used for water rescues.
The board discussed expanding the town park parking lot by moving playground equipment farther away from the river. Approaching owners of property adjoining the park about selling some of their land was mentioned in the meeting.
Byrd suggested having vehicles park diagonally, including along the entrance drive to the park. It was mentioned that the walking track could be moved inward to accommodate this.
Byrd said the difficulty reaching the river ramp in the Ronda Park has increased as popularity of the Yadkin for recreation has grown.
There are several companies now in Wilkes, Surry and Yadkin counties that rent canoes, kayaks and other watercraft, as well as offer shuttle services.
Byrd said the fire department conducts about six to eight rescues on the Yadkin per year.
The department’s third such rescue this year occurred Saturday, July 3, when a group of people had trouble while floating down the river between Ronda and Roaring River.
Byrd said the Ronda Fire Department couldn’t get its 36-foot-long truck with water rescue equipment to the ramp due to vehicles parked along the park entrance drive all the way to Clingman Road and in all other parking spaces.
When the Wilkes Rescue Squad arrived from North Wilkesboro, the squad trailer with a boat pulled by another large rescue truck was switched to a pickup in the fire station parking lot so it could reach the ramp.
Byrd said it turned out that the people who called for help weren’t seriously endangered, but a delay reaching people to make a water rescue can make the difference between life and death.
The possibility of periodically scraping mud off the paved ramp was mentioned. The ramp extends of the parking lot, just upstream from the Yadkin River bridge in Ronda.
Commissioner Kevin Reece shared a letter from Wilkes Emergency Medical Services Director Tim Pennington that said, “As the popularity of river recreation in Wilkes County has exploded, access to patients has become very critical. We frequently use the Ronda Park location to gain patient access for treatment and transport.
“The main roadway in and out of the park is frequently congested and even blocked. As a result, paramedics have to carry emergency medical equipment to patients, possibly delaying needed care.”
Pennington said expansion of parking facilities at the Ronda Park is needed, along with signage designating areas for emergency vehicles only.
Byrd noted that the squad is getting a new boat with a jet prop motor that works better in shallow water. It was funded with a grant. It has two kayaks that are for quick access to a patient.
He said a grant is also being sought to purchase sonar equipment for searching the river.
Ronda Fire Department members have received water rescue training.
By late Tuesday morning, three people had filed as candidates for North Wilkesboro mayor, two for two North Wilkesboro commissioner seats and three for two Wilkesboro councilman seats in this year’s elections.
The fling period for the 2021 municipal elections locally ends at noon Friday.
Filing after the press deadline for the July 7 issue of the Wilkes Journal-Patriot were incumbents Russell F. Ferree and Nellie Hubbard Archibald for the two Wilkesboro council seats, incumbent Robert L. Johnson for North Wilkesboro mayor and incumbent Angela J. Day for one of the two North Wilkesboro commissioner seats.
Johnson filed on July 8 and Day, Archibald and Ferree filed late in the day on July 6.
Day, 50, of J Street, North Wilkesboro, is seeking her second four-year term on the North Wilkesboro board. She is a Realtor and owns and operates Ivy Ridge Traditions on Main Street, North Wilkesboro.
Johnson, 77, of Seventh Street, is seeking his fourth term as North Wilkesboro mayor. He is an electrical contractor.
Ferree, 70, of Shady Lane, is seeking his third term as a Wilkesboro councilman. He is an attorney with an office in downtown Wilkesboro.
Archibald, 56, of Forest Hill Drive, was elected to the Wilkesboro council in 2009. She didn’t seek reelection when that term ended, but was elected in 2017. She was advertising director of the Wilkes Journal-Patriot before retiring earlier this year.
Lee W. Taylor, 77, of East Main Street, filed as a candidate for Wilkesboro councilman on July 2. Taylor is seeking elected office for the first time.
Joseph A. Johnston, 69 of 10th Street, filed as a candidate for North Wilkesboro commissioner on July 2. Johnston served six years as a North Wilkesboro commissioner before not seeking reelection in 2019.
Michael Cooper, 35, of Townsend Street, and Marc R. Hauser, 67, of F Street, both filed for North Wilkesboro mayor on July 2. Both are seeking elected office for the first time.
North Wilkesboro Commissioner Debbie Ferguson is up for reelection this year and said earlier that she would not file.
Candidates file for local elected municipal and county government positions at the Wilkes Board of Elections office on the top floor of the Wilkes County Office Building in Wilkesboro.
A person must be at least 21 on Election Day to file a notice of candidacy for elected office in North Carolina. Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro municipal elections are Nov. 2.
A person also must be registered to vote to file as a candidate, but this can be done on the day of filing.A person can’t file for more than one office in the same election.
The candidate filing fees are $10 for North Wilkesboro mayor and commissioner and $50 for Wilkesboro councilman.
The notice of candidacy includes a question about any previous felony convictions and requires disclosure of any convictions within 48 hours of filing.
Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro have non-partisan elections, which means there are no party primaries and political affiliation isn’t indicated on ballots.
Details on campaign finance requirements are available at the Wilkes Board of Elections, but a campaign report doesn’t have to be filed with the board if a candidate receives or spends less than $1,000.