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Historic Bluffs Lodge
With only 24 rooms, Historic Bluffs Lodge is too small to turn a profit, despite its picturesque setting in the rolling uplands of North Carolina’s Doughton Park.
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Julian Price Park
Campers heading for popular parkway campgrounds like this one in Julian Price Park can now reserve spots in advance. Reservations are accepted for 40 percent of camping spots at Price, Peaks of Otter, Linville Falls and Mt. Pisgah. Next summer, Rocky Knob will be phased in.
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The Hatley Clan
The Hatley clan of Albemarle, N.C also has family traditions of picnics at Crabtree Falls.
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Patsy Gouge and her family, from the South Toe Valley, have family traditions of picnics at Crabtree Falls.
Can Blue Ridge Parkway amenities – many built in the 1940s and '50s – meet today's travelers' needs? And even if the parkway wanted to upgrade, could it be done?
A final picnic at the end of a camping trip. That’s what the Hatley family was enjoying at Crabtree Falls Picnic Area on an August Sunday afternoon before beginning the long drive home to Albemarle, near Charlotte. Most of the clan was there: David and Janie Hatley, three of their four daughters, two with their spouses, one with her fiancé, and four of the grandchildren. The summer camping vacation is a seven- or eight-year-old family tradition. At Carolina Hemlocks, not far from the parkway, they tube and swim in the South Toe River, make forays to local gem mines, and savor some relaxing down-time together.
“Our family has a great appreciation for the outdoors,” Janie Hatley says, as she begins screwing the tops back on jars, and putting away the picnic things. “We come to the same place every year and travel part of the parkway on the way home.”
An even larger family group has covered several nearby picnic tables with plastic table cloths and laid out a terrific spread: ham, chicken, chicken pie, mashed potatoes, potato salad, macaroni, slaw, green beans, tomatoes, baked beans, deviled eggs, pickles and soft drinks. Patsy Gouge, her three children and their spouses, five grandchildren and three greatgrandchildren had driven up from their homes in the South Toe Valley after church.
“We’ve done this for years, at least once a summer,” Mrs. Gouge says. “We used to do it more often, but everybody’s busy. We always cook too much; we could have twice as many people, and still have too much. We like it here. It’s open, and the kids can run and play. We’ll have another picnic here in October. Sometimes we come up and cook steaks for supper too. We drove up after the ice storm last winter, just to see what it looked like. There was lots of damage – a tree had come down across one of the picnic tables. It was a mess, but they’ve done a good job cleaning it up.”
At a table tucked between towering rosebay rhododendrons, Steve and Pam Bailey were having a bite to eat at the end of a motorcycle ride from their Burnsville home. The Baileys make frequent use of the parkway: to picnic, hike, and to ride – to Linville Falls or the Viaduct, occasionally into Asheville. Parkway picnic areas rate high with them because “there’s no charge and they’re not crowded. We’re not far from home, yet it gives us a break away from work and people.” When their children were young, the family took parkway camping trips. Bailey, who lost his longtime job when a local furniture factory closed, went back to school and hopes to land fulltime work as a social studies teacher.
“If hard times continue,” he predicts, “people will take another look at things like this.”
Parkway campground coordinator Theresa Lovelace thinks people already have. Tent (rather than RV) camping has increased in the last couple of years, “probably because of the economy,” she says. Part of the occupancy increase appears due to the parkway’s decision in 2004 to join the National Recreation Reservation Service (recreation.gov), which allows some campsites to be reserved and appears particularly appreciated by visitors who are traveling long distances and making their vacation plans well in advance.
The online reservation system is being phased in gradually: It’s now in place at four of the parkway’s nine campgrounds (Peaks of Otter, Julian Price, Linville Falls and Mt. Pisgah). Rocky Knob will be added in 2011, and Doughton Park in 2012. (Only 40 percent of spaces at participating campgrounds are available by reservation; the rest continue to be rented on a first-come, first-served basis.)
Old Facilities, Two Publics
Antiquated by modern standards, parkway campgrounds were built in the 1940s and 1950s, and were state-of-the-art.
“Showers weren’t standard at campgrounds then, and the concept of large recreational vehicles wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” says parkway director of maintenance Mike Molling. Although some travelers grumble when they discover that there are no showers (except at Mt. Pisgah, where two comfort stations have been retrofitted with them), electrical hookups or other amenities that are now standard at commercial campgrounds, “I don’t necessarily think that we should be competing with them,” he says. “Our campgrounds give people a glimpse of how things were 60 years ago. They aren’t overcrowded; they provide a casual environment.”
“We have two publics, at a minimum,” says Gary Johnson, parkway chief planner and landscape architect. “We have those who like rustic campgrounds and those who don’t. People want more creature comforts now, and there is an incredible lag time in the National Park Service. We’ve been talking about adding showers for 30 years, but as soon as we get into that conversation, then we have to talk about whether we have enough water, drainfields and so on. Adding electrical hookups would require installation of a network of service lines in the campgrounds. We have to decide what the break-even point is. Do we have to completely redo our campground roads to accommodate large RVs, make the tent pads larger for the larger tents people now have, add showers at all campground comfort stations? What about handicap accessibility? What is the minimum investment we can make for maximum return?”
The park service has been able to upgrade sewage systems at several campgrounds within its budgetary constraints. But “asset renewal is a big ticket item,” Molling says. The parkway has applied for $9.5 million to rehabilitate the Peaks of Otter campground, but must compete for funding with other NPS facilities, first at the regional level, then at the national. The parkway won’t know until sometime next year whether its request received a favorable review; even if it is approved, work on the project won’t begin until 2015.
The Realities: New Travelers and Old Facilities
The parkway was designed for a traveling public very different from today’s visitors, who have very different expectations from those for whom the parkway’s picnic areas, campgrounds, restaurants and lodgings were designed. Early visitors “would come for a number of days, and drive, if not all, at least a lot of the parkway, to spend time in a grand landscape setting, not in their rooms or campsites,” Johnson says.
Today’s travelers may think of their parkway visits as getaways, but most want to stay in touch – via TV, internet, cell- or smart-phone – to the world they ostensibly left behind. Because the road passed through rural areas that had little to offer in the way of restaurants or overnight accommodations, the parkway had to offer them. (Parkway gas stations and playing fields at developed areas, which were built for the same reason, have been phased out.)
Except on weekends during the summer months when children are out of school, and the month of October, when the leaf-peepers turn out, parkway picnic areas, campgrounds, restaurants and lodgings are under-used. Maintenance costs for picnic areas are minimal, so their non-use during the week isn’t a big issue, Molling says. If maintenance costs became an issue at campgrounds, the answer could be to shorten their season of operation. But there is no such easy solution to the problem that confronts the parkway and the concessionaires who keep its food and lodging operations open, Johnson acknowledges.
Three companies currently hold the concession contracts for eateries and inns from the Otter Creek coffee shop north of the James River to Pisgah Inn, south of Asheville, says parkway concessions specialist Lisa Davis. While the park service owns the buildings, concessionaires must pay for building improvements specified in the contracts they sign. And since NPS concession contracts run for only 10 years and the improvements needed on the aging buildings are expensive, concessionaires often can’t expect to recoup their investments within the length of the contracts, she says.
Although the settings of Peaks of Otter Lodge, the Bluffs Lodge at Doughton Park, and the Pisgah Inn are lovely – ideal for travelers who want to be able to walk out the door and onto a hiking trail – none have phones in their guest rooms or wi-fi connections. Only Pisgah Inn’s rooms have TVs. While repeat guests may come back year after year for precisely this isolation, “other parkway visitors want more amenities,” amenities they can find at now-abundant off-parkway accommodations, Davis says.
Further complicating matters, the Bluffs Lodge at Doughton Park, which opened in 1949 and has only 24 guest rooms, is now considered a historic structure. Such designation dictates what materials can be used for renovations, increasing their expense.
“Studies have shown that motels need about 70 rooms to break even,” Johnson says. (Peaks of Otter Lodge has 60 guest rooms; Pisgah Inn, 50.) One company holds the contract for the Rocky Knob housekeeping cabins, Mabry Mill restaurant, Doughton Park’s lodge and coffee shop, a boat rental at Price Lake, and the Crabtree Falls coffee shop. “Even when that one company rolls the revenues from all its parkway ventures together, it ends up in the red year after year,” he says. “They provide visitor services for a major chunk of the parkway.”
Because it seemed unlikely that any company would bid on a new 10-year contract, with a new set of stipulated improvements, the parkway has been extending the expired contract with the company a year at a time.
“That’s been our solution, but it’s not a permanent, or a good, one,” says Johnson. What would happen if the company – and a similar situation exists with the company that operates Otter Creek snack shop and Peaks of Otter Lodge and Restaurant – didn’t agree to another extension? “That’s the $64,000 question. What would?”
In August 2009, National Park Service concession planning staff began working with the parkway to look at ways parkway lodgings and restaurants could be expanded to make them a break-even proposition for future concessionaires and maintain the parkway’s design integrity. In the past, parkway managers and concessionaires have talked about various options ranging from adding cabins at Peaks of Otter and/or a second lodge building; building a new, larger restaurant at Mabry Mill and converting the existing restaurant to a visitor center; constructing a new 40-room lodge and cabins and a restaurant near the existing lodge site at Doughton Park. This fall a hospitality industry firm began a condition assessment of the buildings and a business analysis of “what it would take, in terms of added facilities and services, to make parkway lodging and dining concessions profitable,” Johnson says, “Once we have that analysis in hand, we’ll have to figure out a way to get there.”