Building on natural assets: How Burke County is capitalizing on recreation

Rural communities around Charlotte are looking for new economic engines. Urban residents are looking for more outdoor recreation. That provides an opportunity for communities around Charlotte to use their public lands and waterways to fuel growth. And two areas in the region that were ahead of the curve offer lessons for other communities trying to tap this potential source of growth (one in the Uwharries east of Charlotte, and the other in Burke County). Here, we take a look at the experience of Burke County, and how it might inform the efforts of other communities in the Carolinas Urban-Rural Connection region that are interested in tapping into the outdoor recreation industry.

Stop in the offices of Burke County’s Tourism Development Authority in downtown Morganton and you’ll see a bold new logo on many of their brochures and materials. With a shape reminiscent of a Native American arrowhead, bright streaks of orange and blue create a silhouette of distant mountains behind a calm lake. The logo proclaims “Discover Burke County: Nature’s Playground.”

This focus on Burke County’s natural resources wasn’t always central to the county’s marketing efforts. Better known for its connection to manufacturing, especially textiles and furniture, the county’s recreational assets were often overshadowed by better known destinations to its west – the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Pisgah National Forest, and the trendy street life of Asheville, about an hour away on Interstate 40 over the Eastern Continental Divide.

[Read more: Searching for authentic identity and a growth strategy in the Uwharries]

But a renewed commitment to those recreational assets in the 1980s and 90s has helped fuel an economic renaissance for Burke and its county seat of Morganton. The efforts of a local conservation group (the Foothills Conservancy) to preserve 18,000 acres of land adjacent to the South Mountains State Park renewed interest in the county’s overlooked chain of mountains and hills known as the South Mountains, often referred to as the “foothills” of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge.

The timing was fortuitous, as it followed on the heels of the establishment of a new state park in 1987 just 30 miles to the northwest on the banks of Lake James, one of Duke Energy’s hydroelectric reservoirs on the Catawba River. By 2016, Lake James State Park had grown to over 3,700 acres, with nearly 500,000 visitors annually. That same year South Mountains State Park attracted nearly 275,000 people, giving Burke County two publicly-owned outdoor recreation destinations with nearly three quarters of a million annual visitors between them.

A branch of High Shoals Falls in South Mountains State Park. Photo: Ely Portillo

The link between accessible public lands and a successful outdoor recreation strategy is not an accident, says David Knight, former director of North Carolina’s Outdoor Recreation Industry office: “Public lands are huge.”

Acknowledging the role that the non-profit Foothills Conservancy played in helping to jump-start Burke County’s outdoor recreation focus, Knight adds “there’s a great synergy with the land conservation community” in growing and nurturing the public lands that fuel a successful outdoor recreation economy.

But Burke County leaders eventually realized that having natural assets, by itself, doesn’t translate into a robust tourism economy. Ed Phillips, chief executive officer of the Burke County Tourism Development Authority (TDA), says they had to learn how to capitalize on those assets.

“A big part of it is making the link between your asset and the economic capitalization of that asset,” says Phillips. “You have to provide something for people to buy – we have the natural asset infrastructure, but now the catch-up is in providing the products and services that allow you to extract revenue from visitors.”

Part of the county’s success in capitalizing on its assets has been the investment in downtown Morganton. Centered on the historic Burke County Courthouse built in the 1830s, downtown Morganton today is a quaint and vibrant district of restaurants, shops and professional offices. Much of its success is the result of what Liz Parham, Director of the NC Main Street & Rural Planning Center, calls “one of North Carolina’s strongest Main Street programs.”

The collective draw of downtown Morganton and nearby outdoor recreation amenities has driven up traffic to Burke TDA’s downtown visitor center by 60% since 2010, according to Phillips. And there have been 44 new businesses established in downtown Morganton over the last five years, 20 of them new retailers.

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Two retail sectors in particular seem to have developed a symbiotic relationship in response to the county’s outdoor recreation culture – cycling and craft beer. Overmountain Cycles in downtown Morganton caters to cyclists and mountain bikers, while the opening of Catawba Brewery in 1999 established one of Burke County’s first new manufacturing sectors since the furniture industry. Today, according to Phillips, three craft breweries employ around 130 people in Morganton, all but a handful in downtown; five taprooms employ an additional twelve.

“People who love craft beer also love the outdoors – and mountain bikes are a key component,” notes Phillips.

Recognizing this connection, the Burke County planning department has been instrumental in establishing the new Fonta Flora State Trail around Lake James. A natural-surface trail accessible to both hikers and bikers, Fonta Flora came about through a partnership between the county, Crescent Communities, NC State Parks, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission and a coalition of private landowners and volunteers. It’s yet another attraction placing Morganton and Burke County on the map for outdoors enthusiasts in nearby urban places like Charlotte, Asheville and Winston-Salem.

But to really capitalize on those visitors, communities interested in building an outdoor recreation industry need to establish the infrastructure and attract the leadership and investment necessary to sustain the industry long-term.

“Broadband is essential, as is lodging, and wayfinding signs,” says David Knight. “And it’s leadership, philanthropy, the commitment of local officials, and having investors – long-term, not just short-term private equity that wants to get in and back out quickly.”

Burke is working on those things as well. A new Fairfield Suites is under construction in Morganton – not off the interstate on the outskirts of town where hotel chains frequently locate, but on the edge of downtown. With 85 rooms and an investment team that includes the owners of Fonta Flora Brewery, the project is a signature component of Morganton’s ongoing efforts to sustain a place-based economic development strategy. That strategy also includes ta new western campus of the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, scheduled to open in 2021.

Vacation rentals are also a part of the overnight accommodations mix. According to Phillips, vacation rentals have more than doubled in three years (buoyed by the rise in vacation rental listing sites such as Airbnb and VRBO), while occupancy tax revenue grew by 9 percent in just the past year, after posting 5 percent and 12 percent increases respectively in the previous two years. “You’ve got to have places for people to stay,” he says. “It’s often the unmet need for most communities, the missing link.”

Burke County’s recent success in the outdoor recreation industry has caused some to take an honest look at the sector’s downsides. One of those is the uneven distribution of tourism activity (and thus jobs and revenue) over the course of the year. “How do you keep employment in the service industry active year-round?” asks David Knight, acknowledging the seasonal nature of outdoor recreation.

A related danger is “over-tourism,” adds Burke TDA’s Phillips. “How do you manage having too much pressure on the resources at certain times? By packing most outdoor recreation activity into two days every weekend is placing tremendous stress on the resources.”

But for now, those are challenges the leadership of Burke County and Morganton are willing to grapple with as they begin to enjoy the benefits of a nearly three-decades long campaign to become a major player in the outdoor recreation field.