Monday, February 16, 2009

7 Lessons from a Weekend Trip

Since I was a kid, I have spent many days, weeks, and weekends in Western North Carolina, most of them at my grandmother's house in rural Buladean, where my mother grew up and many of my relatives still live nearby. It is a wonderful, almost hidden place, where time stands still in ways good and bad. For those of you who have lived in or have relatives in similar areas, you don't need me to explain what I mean.

But suffice it to say that I have a special place in my heart for the North Carolina mountains -- there is a part of me that still feels very much like I am coming "home" whenever I see the gentle slopes of the Appalachians loom as we head into Northern Georgia and Upstate South Carolina.

Last weekend, our family had the pleasure of spending the better part of four days (Oconee schools were out Friday and Monday) in Blowing Rock, N.C. Blowing Rock (downtown shops pictured above) is quite different than Buladean and Bakersville -- although just an hour+ northeast, it is on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge in the North Carolina "high country." "High" might refer to elevation or income, but either way it was home to a lot of affluent retirees and shops, restaurants, parks, etc. While not as high-falutin', it kind of felt like Charlotte's version of Highlands, N.C., the summer-time playground of many of Atlanta's elite.

All that said, the town had a lot of redeeming qualities that are applicable to Watkinsville and other small communities. Many of these principles we have adopted, but I took away seven critical lessons from my visit to Blowing Rock, which obviously has a big head start in terms of time and tax base on Watkinsville.

1) Parks and Recreation -- Think Small: Right along Main Street, Blowing Rock had a spectacular park, with something for almost everyone. Two playscapes accommodated children ages 2-9. Two full length basketball courts, two tennis courts, a climbing wall, and restrooms were nearby. While these facilities on some level were similar to what we have at Harris Shoals, their proximity to downtown encouraged enormous pedestrian traffic and a lot of business at the shops as moms shopped and dads watched kids and ate ice cream. It was clean, open, and well designed. On a warm-ish winter afternoon, at least 100 kids were enjoying the playground this weekend. Also, within an easy walk of downtown, they had two other spectacular parks, the Annie Cannon Gardens, a pocket park, and Broyhill Park, which featured a beautiful lake and walking paths. The Cannon Gardens also served as the entry way for the Glen Burney trail, a 1.4 mile hike along a creek that led to two waterfalls (one is pictured to the left).

While we aren't blessed in Watkinsville with this type of natural beauty, with some creative thinking we could certainly do more. I have long advocated for a greenway that would link Harris Shoals to downtown or Ashford Manor to allow families to park in one area and easily move through town without cars. Having a more youth focused playground at Rocket Field might also make sense. What are some other ideas for convenient green spaces in Watkinsville? How can we use recreation to support downtown businesses?

While Oconee has made significant investments in greenspaces in recent years, very few of them can be accessed without vehicles, and little thought seems to have been given to how we can tie them together. How can we better link our parks in Watkinsville and Oconee and build more new ones that are truly neighborhood based?

2) Parks and Recreation -- Think Big: Blowing Rock is less than a mile from the remarkable Moses Cone Memorial Park. This passive recreation area features 25 miles of "carriage paths" which are ideal for horseback riding, running, walking, etc (see the photo). This morning I ran from downtown Blowing Rock to the Cone Manor and back, and while cold, it was spectacular. Why wouldn't one want to visit (or live) there? It was an amazing place that shows just how powerful an investment in passive recreation can be. While the convenient location impressed, a stronger focus on passive recreation, landscaping and beautifying Heritage Park, Harris Shoals, and other Oconee green spaces could yield similar results, especially if some of the federal land assets in our community come available some day.

Better accommodating and embracing our area's cycling-centric heritage could also pay recreational dividends. Investments in rail trails and more could help us capture more of this market.

Blowing Rock is also astride the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most scenic driving routes in America, near Grandfather Mountain, and several other parks, including skiing destinations in winter and rafting in the summer. Again, it is hard to compete with this level of natural abundance, but it is obvious their focus on recreation has paid off. For anyone who enjoys any facet of being outdoors, the town offers a set of offerings that is hard to beat, regardless of the season.

3) Cleanliness: A major of focus of Mayor Luken has been to keep downtown clean, and we have made remarkable progress. I noticed Blowing Rock was clean as could be -- not a bit of trash anywhere. Great towns take pride in their appearance, and I was pleased that Watkinsville and Blowing Rock stack up nicely.

4) Bypassing Truck Traffic: There is a 321 bypass that sends most significant traffic around downtown Blowing Rock, which has been preserved and protected through the years. This means that the traffic that does come downtown does so to be downtown, not to simply pass through. I did not see a single tractor trailer. This made it so much easier to move back and forth across the streets, especially with children. Some day, a bypass from Hwy 15 to 441 will hopefully have the same effect on Watkinsville.

5) A healthy downtown: While merchants across the U.S. are struggling -- Blowing Rock is not immune, as we dined at a 55-year-old diner that was shutting down this Sunday -- it was obvious the heart beat of the city was its downtown. It was the differentator for this small Western N.C. town in an area that has plenty of soulful views but few towns with an actual soul. And our area of Georgia is not that different. We in Watkinsville must do all we can to support, patronize and take care of our downtown businesses in the years ahead in order to preserve this vital asset for our community. I took a lot of pride that their shops were similar to ours (although on a higher level), with pottery, apparel, dining, and other options.

6) Great natural assets: While Oconee County and this region can't hope to match the WNC mountains for views, we do have our own beautiful areas, South Oconee and the lakes in particular. Perhaps the time has come to better package and market South Oconee as South Fulton and other counties have done with the Chattahoochee Hill Country and take concrete steps that will make that asset more valuable for existing land owners while providing some certainty to those who are investing their money and time in making it a home for their families.

7) Private support: It was obvious that Blowing Rock has benefited from the wealthy individuals who have relocated or "summered" there through the years. Broyhill Park (pictured) is likely named after the Broyhill Furniture family, Moses Cone Memorial Park was created by a wealthy industrialist, and other community assets in town were obviously generously supported by private donors. I'm not suggesting we have the wealth in Watkinsville to take this approach. To the contrary, it is obvious that residents of Blowing Rock love their town, just as our citizens love Watkinsville, and give back in whatever way they can. The contributions of our citizens are a remarkable asset to our city. It seems to me that when everything can be "bought and paid for" and citizens no longer give of their time or resources, something is lost.

Would welcome your comments on your favorite places to visit that might offer lessons for Watkinsville (or Oconee County) as we seek to become a great place to live and visit. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, and Blowing Rock is one of the best.

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