Outdoor recreation is a growing economic driver in western North Carolina and holds potential for Wilkes, especially considering the county’s close proximity to Charlotte, Winston-Salem and other urban areas.
Recognizing this, a group representing local governments and other entities in Wilkes is exploring how the county’s recreational opportunities could be better utilized as an economic engine and also how they might be expanded.
The Health Foundation convened representatives of the Wilkes Economic Development Corp., and governments of Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro and Wilkes County to attend the 2019 Outdoor Economy Conference in Asheville in October, where they heard from outdoor economy experts in western North Carolina and across the nation. One of the things they learned was that a single attraction in a community may draw people, but visitors often decide to experience other things as well once there.
Health Foundation Executive Director Heather Murphy said promoting the outdoor recreation economy in Wilkes has tremendous potential to improve overall health of Wilkes residents, which she said is tied to the county’s economic vitality.
Wilkes already has much to offer visitors interested in outdoor recreation, including a 33-mile network of mountain bike trails around W. Kerr Scott Reservoir. This trail system is listed among the best in the Southeast and hands down is among the top five in the state. It regularly draws cyclists from across the eastern U.S. and has prompted people to move to Wilkes from as far away as the West Coast.
The 1,475-acre W. Kerr Scott Reservoir is an outstanding watersports asset with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds along its shores.
The trails at W. Kerr Scott are complemented by Wilkesboro’s equally well-made mountain bike trails near Cub Creek Park, soon to be about eight miles long. Not far away is the Yadkin River Greenway, nearly eight miles long, along the Yadkin and Reddies rivers in the Wilkesboros.
Several scenic backroads in Wilkes have been mapped for road cycling and draw cyclists from Charlotte and other urban areas.
There are about 75 miles of state-designated trout streams in Wilkes.
The Yadkin River has rapidly grown in popularity among paddlers in recent years, especially from W. Kerr Scott Dam to North Wilkesboro’s Smoot Park and from Roaring River to Ronda. Several tributaries of the Yadkin can also be paddled, especially in kayaks. Multiple businesses rent canoe and kayaks and some offer shuttle services.
In eastern Wilkes, large portions of a 26-mile section of the Mountains to the Sea Trail from Elkin to Stone Mountain State Park have been completed. It has sections designated for horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking. Stone Mountain is among the most popular state parks, drawing visitors for hiking, trout fishing, horseback riding, rock climbing and more.
Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro built performance venues in their downtown areas and have regular schedules of live music and other entertainment in the warmer months. Wilkesboro also has the Wilkes Heritage Museum and North Wilkesboro also has the Wilkes Art Gallery, plus both towns have commercial art galleries.
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte Urban Institute reported that downtown Morganton gained 20 new retailers and about 20 other new businesses over the last five years by enhancing its downtown and promoting Burke County’s outdoor recreation. In a sort of symbiotic relationship, breweries and some other businesses in Morganton help draw visitors and to varying degrees depend on them.
Having enough motel rooms and vacation rental houses to accommodate visitors is essential. With an increase in accommodations comes more occupancy tax revenue for promotions and to help fund infrastructure for visitors, especially if all government jurisdictions in a county have an occupancy tax. Unfortunately, Wilkesboro is the only jurisdiction in Wilkes with an occupancy tax.
Robust outdoor recreation equates to good quality of life and that can attract fulltime residents, in addition to visitors. It can also attract certain types of manufacturers. Western North Carolina has seen a burgeoning outdoor gear manufacturing industry, partly due to the region’s outdoor culture.
Wilkes County has all the ingredients to be a haven for outdoor recreation and the accompanying healthy lifestyles, with terrain ranging from rugged mountains to rolling hills, thousands of miles of streams (most of which begin and end in Wilkes), outstanding mountain bike trails, hundreds of miles of lightly traveled backroads, historical sites, welcoming small towns and more.