As the deadline for deciding where to site a new “destination center” for the Blue Ridge Parkway draws near, there appears to be considerable confusion on the part of both Parkway officials and members of the nonprofit Southern Highland Craft Guild about multiple aspects of the project.
After three public meetings at which planners have solicited public comment, there are still no clear guidelines as to what aspects of the project the public needs to address, or what comments might be considered germane to the discussion. Meanwhile, some local crafters continue to express doubts about the need for such a center in the first place. More than one person who spoke at the meetings noted that the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce is building a “destination” tourist center in downtown Asheville that seems to replicate the Parkway plan.
For more than 25 years, planners for the Blue Ridge Parkway have nurtured the idea of building a grand visitors’ facility (aka “destination center”) to be located somewhere near Asheville.
In the 1990s, plans eased ahead with the acquisition of land at Hemphill Knob, adjacent to the Parkway and near the intersection linking the scenic roadway with Interstate 40, Interstate 240 and U.S. 74A. A new Parkway headquarters was built there, and some extra site work was done to lay the groundwork for the visitors’ center.
U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor jumped on board publicly in 1998, talking to journalists about a grandiose vision for the visitor complex that would include restaurants, shopping and an IMAX theater. Still, the plans remained nebulous until money for planning was included in this year’s Parkway budget.
Suddenly the project began to look real — all too real to many members of the Guild, whose headquarters and nationally acclaimed Allanstand Craft Shop are at the Folk Art Center, just two miles east of Hemphill Knob. The prospect of a competing tourist destination just over the Swannanoa River and a short distance through the woods galvanized the crafters. The Allanstand Craft Shop, one of five retail outlets operated by the Guild, sells pottery, jewelry, wood, glass, fiber, metal and other items made by members. Sales from the shop account for 60 percent of the Guild’s retail revenues.
The Guild, a nonprofit promoting excellence in Southern Appalachian crafts, has more than 800 member crafters in nine states. And on Sept. 9, while much of Asheville languished without power or water during Western North Carolina’s double-whammy hurricane crisis, some six dozen people made their way to Parkway headquarters for a “public scoping” meeting. There, planners presented two options for the new center, both sited at Hemphill Knob. But the public comments received that day and afterward have run heavily against those plans, according to the Parkway’s Chief of Resource Planning and Professional Services Gary Johnson.
More than 100 crafters attended a second meeting hosted by Johnson on Oct. 22 at the Asheville Civic Center during this year’s Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands (the 57th running of the annual event, which is sponsored by the Guild). In response to the first-round comments, planners had come up with two additional options for the visitor facility, which might now be placed either adjacent to the Folk Art Center or as an addition to it. The comments on these alternatives were generally favorable; those who spoke also expressed continuing concern about the possible negative impacts of the two original options.
At the Oct. 22 meeting, Johnson stressed several key changes in the plans, which seemed to raise as many questions as they answered. Although the Park Service had consulted with the company that runs IMAX theaters elsewhere in the country, the theater being considered for the new facility would not be an IMAX. And because National Park Service rules prohibit marketing per se, that function would have to be restricted to generally boosting regional tourism and perhaps directing visitors to local chambers of commerce or other tourist centers. Restaurants had also been nixed, and Johnson noted that a proposed bookstore would either duplicate or replace the existing one in the Folk Art Center. He assured the crafters that wherever the facility is sited, it will not sell craft items — but he added that the Park Service strives to make such visitor centers self-sustaining via ticket and retail sales.
Finally, Johnson told the audience that the Park Service is using a new decision-making system called “Choosing By Advantages,” which he described as a “method of selecting a preferred alternative.” Admitting that the process was new to him too, Johnson said he couldn’t offer any guidance to stakeholders who wanted to make pertinent comments.
Choosing By Advantages
The next chance for public input was a Nov. 9 public-comment session at A-B Tech. Once again, all four options were on display. Noel Fair, one of the private consultants hired to plan the new facility, gave a presentation in which he noted that the comments received so far had run overwhelmingly against the Hemphill Knob site.
That observation held true when more than a dozen area residents stepped up to the microphone to weigh in on the project. All of them opposed the Hemphill location, and most supported the idea of making the new visitor center an addition to the existing Folk Art Center.
A typical comment came from Nancy Fleming, a member of the Guild’s board of trustees, who questioned the very need for a new destination center. “The Folk Art Center has been called ‘the jewel of the Blue Ridge Parkway,'” noted Fleming. “Over 300,000 people came through the center last year. Isn’t that a destination center?”
Arthur Allen, a retired career Parkway staffer, has been a stained-glass artist for 35 years and a Guild member for 25. “It is sensible to only ask visitors to stop once to experience what we are going to provide them,” he reasoned. “I feel very strongly that setting up a new building two miles away will negatively affect the Folk Art Center and the Guild.”
None of the Parkway officials present at the meeting could offer any insight into what criteria the Choosing By Advantages system would use in deciding where to site the facility. Trying to clarify matters, Johnson said: “We look at how substantive the comments are. For example, discussion of the Folk Art Center site was substantive, and we offered two new alternatives.” Officials made it clear that comments must be received by Monday, Nov. 29, in order to be considered before the final decision is made (sometime in December).
Parkway Supervisor Dan Brown told Xpress that the CBA process will be facilitated by employees of the consulting firm and that “part of the brainstorming process is to decide what advantages deserve consideration, based on the public input.” Out of that process, said Brown, will come “a preferred alternative which will be included in the draft environmental assessment, which should be ready for further public comment by the spring.”
[Comments may be submitted to Gary Johnson by phone (271-4779, ext. 210), e-mail (email@example.com) or mail (c/o Blue Ridge Parkway, 199 Hemphill Knob Road, Asheville NC 28803-8686).]