County could capitalize on history, natural resources

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   Carter County may be lacking in manufacturing-based industries, but it has a wealth of heritage, history, and natural resources which could be its ticket to better economic times ahead.
   In September, 1780, President George W. Bush's great-grandfather, four or five times removed, served in the Washington County, Va., militia, according to Herb Roberts of the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area.
   "He mustered here. George and his father are both members of the Sons of the American Revolution. The militia of Virginia gathered up around Abingdon and then came down the Holston and came close to Rocky Mount. Some of them mustered at Pemberton Oak. Some of them trickled down and made it here to Sycamore Shoals on the 25th and then went on to Kings Mountain," Roberts said.
   This year, Sycamore Shoals will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of "The Wataugans," the official outdoor drama for the state of Tennessee. The Watauga Historical Association has extended invitations to the governor and local legislators for the celebration. It is too soon to know whether President Bush could be on hand for the event, but overtures have been made, according to Roberts.
   Larry Gobble, tourism director for the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce, says historic value and scenic beauty could become marketable resources for the region.
   "We've got the draw of the Covered Bridge, being the oldest still in use in the state. We have Roan Mountain State Park which has camping facilities, a pool, tennis courts and cabins. People come in just for the natural beauty that we have here, and the friendliness," Gobble said.
   Last year, 500,729 persons visited the park in Roan Mountain. Sycamore Shoals had 235,000 visitors after it reopened in April 2002.
   "The last reporting figures that we had, tourism brings in $20 million a year in Carter County," Gobble said. "How many companies in Carter County pay out $20 million here? Tourism is a very important part of Carter County and most Carter Countians don't realize it. For every dollar that we spend, basically we're getting $25 back in the community. Think what it would be like if we had three times or four times the budget."
   Gobble said his tourism department is funded solely by the 5 percent tax on hotel rooms in Carter County. "We receive no city money, no county money, no state or federal money. If we have a good year, we maintain. With the war and everything else going on, we just don't know what's going to happen this year."
   Haynes Elliott, Carter County Economic Development director, said the biggest problem with promoting tourism is that tourism has no money. "If we would decide to spend some money, we could sure develop it, and it would mean a lot," he said.
   One problem with bringing tourists to the area, of course, is lack of roads. State Sen. Rusty Crowe, Rep. Jerome Cochran and local delegations are working to change that.
   Crowe said Wednesday that he would love to see U.S. Highway 67 around Watauga Lake expanded. "It's an economic development thing we should be doing. It's so hard for people from Shady Valley, Mountain City, Johnson County and North Carolina to come down through there. If a young person wants to go to a movie on Saturday night and the movie starts at 9 o'clock, they end up coming down the mountain to eat in Elizabethton. After the movie's over, they're on the road late at night. It takes so long and it's so dangerous."
   Crowe, City Manager Charles Stahl, Mayor Sam LaPorte, and County Executive Dale Fair will be discussing future road development in upcoming weeks with the new Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) commissioner.
   Crowe and Cochran also are working with TDOT to initiate a wildflower program, similar to those in Virginia and North Carolina, to create "road appeal" along major highways to attract visitors.
   "We're also trying to work on tying together all of the historical sites through bus coach tours. John Ruetz, who puts on a lot of the theater productions in Jonesborough, found that President Bush has family roots and ties right here on the banks of the Watauga," Crowe said.
   "We've got Sycamore Shoals, Tipton-Haynes, Rocky Mount, and I guess you might say a timeline for history starting at Sycamore Shoals where the first form of government was," Crowe said.
   He, Cochran and local representatives also are working on future development along I-26 as it enters Tennessee from Asheville. "There needs to be a true interchange off I-26 so we can have some tourism-type things there. Roads mean jobs, roads mean tourism, roads mean growth and development of infrastructure. When you have roads, businesses want to come," he said.
   Ruetz, a member of the Watauga Historical Association said there is an extraordinary amount of history in Elizabethton, and also Jonesborough, where he resides.
   "There's been some discussion of things that could possibly be done to see if we could raise a new level of cooperation. What we're hoping is that we can do some things that raise the visibility for everybody."
   Our rich history, Ruetz said, is our drawing card. "We don't have anything else. Of course we have scenery, but who doesn't have scenery? Utah is a gorgeous state; Colorado, California, our neighbors -- Kentucky and Virginia -- are beautiful places as well. That's not going to get it done.
   "We're also blessed by history and heritage," especially from the eras of the Revolutionary and Civil wars, he said. "If you put the stories of Jonesborough and Elizabethton together with Rocky Mount and the Tipton-Haynes Farm, and Erwin, especially if we think big and think regionally, we have history here that would far exceed most regions in the country.
   "We far surpass Williamsburg. There were extraordinary things that happened here. The first free and independent government in the United States was formed on the banks of the Watauga River in Elizabethton. Most people don't know that. We don't pay any attention to it. We don't tell our story well," Ruetz said.
   "If we don't use our heritage and our history to our advantage, we're making a terrible mistake."