After more than a year of lockdowns and hesitant restarts, the Madison County college town of Mars Hill is feeling the effects of shifting trends, says Angela Morgan, owner of Black Bear Realty. “People have decided they want to have a less congested life but still have access to restaurants and shopping,” she notes. “And during the lockdown, people had a lot of spare time to go online and look for places to live and open small businesses.”
Quite a few of those internet surfers have since turned into residents, with significantly higher home prices and a larger volume of residential sales recorded in Madison County in 2021 compared with previous years. Some of the recent arrivals have launched new enterprises, with at least six businesses opening since last fall.
Driven by their proximity to Asheville and scenic landscape, Morgan says, “Mars Hill and Marshall are definitely up-and-coming.”
When ayurvedic practitioner Abbas Rakhshani moved his holistic health practice from a Walmart-anchored shopping center in South Asheville to Mars Hill this year, “I thought I would have to educate the community about mind/body wellness,” he says. But he needn’t have worried: Local residents have been “very receptive.”
“I feel my vibrations have lifted here,” Rakhshani reports. Many of his Asheville clients followed him to Mars Hill, and his practice has grown substantially. “I have four times as many clients than when I was in South Asheville,” he says.
Rakhshani purchased the former law office where The Yoga Wellness Center is now located. In addition to his own practice, the space also houses a mental health counselor, massage therapist and children’s speech therapist.
“Growth here is inevitable,” Rakhshani says. “And I, like many of the other small-business owners here, plan on staying actively involved in the town’s growth.”
Mother-daughter business partners Michele Clark and Sydney Keating opened The Wild Violet, an all-organic grocery and café, from a kiosk in the fall of 2020. In August, the store opened its brick-and-mortar location at 14 Main St., where offerings include local produce, bulk miso, local kimchi and herbs. A range of reusable containers and totes — part of the shop’s commitment to zero-waste retail — are also for sale. A café serves teas, juices, smoothies and vegetarian dishes.
While some may find new-age health- and wellness-oriented businesses a strange fit for Madison County, Clark says locals often remark that the store reminds them of how they grew up.
Native Shasta Wilde, administration and marketing manager at The Yoga Wellness Center, agrees. “I think my family got off the boat from Scotland and came right to these mountains,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in holistic medicine. Growing up, we just called it mountain medicine.”
A community effort
Miryam Rojas, a native of New York and former Floridian, discovered Madison County while visiting friends in Asheville. After deciding to put down roots in Western North Carolina, Rojas renovated Mars Hill’s old skating rink to open Mars Landing Galleries, an art gallery and working artists’ studio, in July. Joining Rojas in the purple building behind the town’s library is Meadowsweet Creamery, which serves up homemade ice cream sandwiches that Rojas describes as “food art.”
“The sophisticated flavor combinations we do go really well with the ambiance of the gallery,” says Meadowsweet’s Michael Clem. According to the shop’s Facebook page, those flavors have included apple pie ice cream with cheddar cookies, lavender with lemon curd, blue cheese, cantaloupe thyme and sweet corn, among others. Those hankering for a sweet treat can bypass the art gallery and access the creamery via a back entrance, where picnic tables invite customers to linger.
Rojas and other local business owners joined forces to launch a monthly First Fridays event to build awareness of all that’s going on in the town. Next happening 5-8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3, the festive occasion includes live music, art and seasonal beverage offerings. Visitors who have their event cards punched by at least four participating merchants may enter a drawing for a special prize.
Another First Fridays leader, LeeAnn Petropoulos, opened Yiayia Black Sheep yarn shop on Main Street in April. She says she loves the “fabulous little community” of Mars Hill and wants to see it grow while maintaining its tightknit sense of community. “I want to do my part to bring more people here but keep it small at the same time,” she explains.
Out on the town
Meanwhile, the town continues to offer more reasons for residents to stay and visitors to linger. Hickory Nut Gorge Brewery and Camden’s Coffee House opened in 2019. “The brewery and the coffeehouse have been a great addition, and I think help draw other small businesses,” says Sandy Stevenson, director of the Madison County Visitor Center on Main Street.
She’s not worried about encroachment from malls and big-box stores. “We’re too small to be on their radar,” she says. “And we don’t have any flat land.”
The mountains have been good to a few longtime businesses on Main Street. Across the street from the visitor center, Stackhouse has been running a brisk lunch and dinner service built around burgers, barbecue and beer since 2015. “We stay busy,” says kitchen manager Kevin Cirtain. “A lot of people are moving out this way, and we have a large, regular local crowd.”
The same goes for local institution The Original Papa Nick’s, which first opened in Mars Hill in 1991, according to the eatery’s website. Stevenson says it can be difficult to get a seat for dinner at the family-owned pizzeria and Italian restaurant, especially when special events are going on, such as shows at the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre or local performances by the national champion Bailey Mountain Cloggers.
Going for growth
Mars Hill’s population of about 3,000 — which includes students at Mars Hill University — is spread across 2 square miles of mountain terrain, according to Nathan Bennett, the town manager. With a 20-minute commute to Asheville on Interstate 26, the hamlet increasingly attracts residents who want to live in a small town but work in a bigger city.
Growth has been pretty consistent, Bennett says, as the 2010 census showed residency at about 1,800. Current housing construction projects include a 100-unit and a 20-unit subdivision; both are geared toward working families. According to Bennett, an additional 58-unit single-family home subdivision near the interstate was recently approved. He says he frequently responds to inquiries about commercial vacancies in the historic downtown but doesn’t know of any firm new offers on the table.
“We’re in a good position with the investments made in infrastructure over the last 20 years,” Bennett says, “and we don’t have a lot of restrictions on growth,” adding that the town’s aldermen and mayor are in agreement about the focus for Mars Hill’s future. The plan is to keep it intimate, while growing the tax base and attractiveness for visitors and residents alike.