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Gazette writers Christopher Brooke and April Wright contributed to this article.
The Twin Counties' premier Blue Ridge Parkway attraction made an impression on one tourist in a visitor study:
"Blue Ridge Music Center — outstanding music, rocking chairs," that person reacted in a survey, singling out the visitors' center dedicated to old-time music past and present at the 213 mile marker.
This visitor center provided an experience that obviously stayed on this respondent's mind in the study produced in 2007 and 2008 by the University of Idaho's Park Studies Unit — a result that must please tourism officials in “gateway communities” like Galax, Fancy Gap, Hillsville, Independence and Fries.
Community and business leaders see tremendous potential in capturing revenue from the millions of Blue Ridge Parkway users that drive through Carroll and Grayson counties on the scenic road every year.
The challenge remains attracting those visitors into the community to eat at restaurants, stay at the lodgings, buy merchandise at stores and patronize local events.
This has led to efforts like the Blue Ridge Host visitors center going up in Fancy Gap to convince more of these leisure travelers to pull off the parkway — or U.S. 52 and Interstate 77, as the case may be.
The numbers crunched by these visitors surveys, traffic counts and economic impact studies give clues to how much Twin County communities have benefitted and how much more potential there is to attract tourism dollars.
Blue Ridge Music Center
Researchers in the University of Idaho study asked more than 1,000 people in both fall 2007 and summer 2008 about what attracted them to "America's Favorite Drive," what they did while on their trip, what services they used and where they went.
When they surveys came back, researchers learned that about 11 percent of 1,089 respondents stopped in at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax that fall.
That summer, 16 percent of 772 respondents checked out the exhibits and listened to music.
Those results from the fall made the music center the 11th most-visited site along the parkway in the study.
The most visitors in that survey, 27 percent, reported that they went to the Folk Art Center at Asheville, N.C., followed by Linville Falls, Craggy Gardens, Moses Cone Memorial Park, Mabry Mill at nearby Meadows of Dan, Peaks of Otter, Linn Cove Viaduct, Mount Pisgah Lodge, Crabtree Meadows and Julian Price.
The next summer, the music center rose to the seventh most popular site to visit, with Mabry Mill earning the top slot.
In terms of places to enter and exit the parkway, the interchange at U.S. 52 in Fancy Gap traditionally has been the most-used Twin County gateway, according to the National Park Service.
It's common for the Fancy Gap interchange to be called the second-most-used gateway to the Blue Ridge Parkway behind Asheville.
Researchers asked the respondents to report where they first entered and last left the parkway.
Out of 76 interchanges along the 469-mile parkway, a fraction of the respondents either started or ended their recreational journey in Fancy Gap.
For fall, 44 out of 1,079, or roughly 4 percent, of respondents made U.S. 52 their first entry point. Those exiting onto U.S. 52 numbered 35 out of 1,026, or about 3 percent.
In summer, 49 out of 772 began at Fancy Gap, or about 6 percent, and 33 out of 731, or about 4.5 percent, left the parkway at that point.
Survey responses show that Fancy Gap was the most-used exit and entrance in the region.
The entries at the beginning of the parkway near Skyline Drive and Shenandoah, near Boone and Blowing Rock and at Asheville had higher amounts of usage in both summer and fall results than Fancy Gap.
Breaking down where the visitors came from, a third of the 2,640 respondents came from North Carolina that fall, followed by 15 percent from Virginia.
Florida followed as number three with about 10 percent of the respondents being from the Sunshine State.
While there were many reasons that people would come, almost all respondents reported they came to see the beautiful vistas that the parkway presents to visitors.
"Concerning their activities at the park, 95 percent of fall visitor groups and 89 percent of summer visitor groups viewed scenery and took scenic drives," the research says. "Fifty-nine percent of fall visitor groups and 52 percent of summer visitor groups engaged in photography, painting and drawing."
"For 97 percent of fall and 96 percent summer visitor groups, the scenic drive and scenic views were the most important of the park's attributes and resources," the researchers went on to say. "Clean air was the most important to 93 percent of fall and 92 percent of summer visitor groups."
While they were on the parkway, most respondents — 32 percent in fall and 36 percent in summer — took advantage of concessions and facilities at Mabry Mill near Meadows of Dan.
Parkway representatives look forward to getting new data about the economic impact on its gateway communities, according to Gary Johnson of the parkway's headquarters. The last study was in 1996 and only totaled the economic impact on the states of Virginia and North Carolina as a whole.
But based on that data, officials figured that Virginia sees about $500 million in direct economic impact from the parkway each year.
That's a benefit for the 12 counties along the parkway, he said.
That same study found that travelers from outside of Virginia would spend an average of $264 per day in surrounding communities during their parkway visit, Johnson said.
"The per person per trip expenditure estimates were used to calculate a total direct expenditure for non resident visitors of $476,568,500," the economic impact report states.
Taxes on retail sales and gas generated an estimated $41.77 million in state and local revenue, the report added.
"Nearly 39.9 percent of the direct expenditures by nonresident travel were for lodging, and 32.99 percent were for eating and drinking," the report says about community spending.
Research has shown that many people that get on and off at Fancy Gap by way of Interstate 77's Exit 8 fit a certain profile.
"I-77 seemed to be a really important entry to the parkway for people who were going to the Meadows of Dan area," Johnson explained.
Working With Communities
Park service officials continue to work with gateway communities to increase the amount of traffic that flows from the parkway into the localities nearby, parkway Superintendent Phil Francis said.
Sound-off meetings were held in four communities last year, including Galax, to give locals a chance to give input on the relationship between them and the parkway. The superintendent said officials want to hold more of those meetings in the future.
Since then, officials have applied for grants to pay for a smart phone application that provides visitor information for things to see and do in communities off of the parkway, the superintendent said. They are also trying to develop funding for a parkway community liaison.
Fancy Gap received a $38,500 federal grant designed to attract tourists into communities. That grant paid for an interactive tourism information kiosk that now has information about features of Carroll and Grayson counties, Galax, the Virginia State Parks and other localities.
The kiosk has been located with the Blue Ridge Host Visitors' Center, just north of the parkway on U.S. 52, a continuing effort to steer tourist traffic towards spending money with local businesses.
Traffic Slows Down
While parkway officials have been making preparations to celebrate the scenic drive's 75th anniversary, bad weather has actually kept visitors away this year, he reports.
As a whole, the parkway has seen a drop in visitation of 35 percent from last year. Francis attributes that to severe winter weather, including closures and damage the cold and the snow caused.
Detours, ongoing closures and the recession also impacted visitation, he expects.
"We show this year so far at U.S. 52 [through July] about 95,000 visitors," he reported. "Last year, it was 128,000, so we're down 25 percent.
"Again, it's because of the winter storms..."
Up to the same point last year, the parkway had hosted about 8.3 million visitors. This year, by comparison, the figure is about 6.8 million.
Last year, about 16 million visitors used the parkway.
(Estimates from the Blue Ridge Parkway reveal that traffic has declined each year from the 19 million recreational visitors from 2006.)
This year, officials had hoped visitation would swell to more than 20 million.
"So it's hard to say what will happen for the rest of the year," he said. "I hope people will come out and enjoy the parkway."
Ray Kohl, director of the Galax Visitors Center, said that with thousands expected to attend the Blue Ridge Parkway's 75th anniversary celebration this year, many people are expected to visit and attend downtown Galax festivities.
“We have many people in to the visitors center [from the parkway],” said Kohl. “They come here to plan their trips to the Rex, visit a shop they've heard about or go to jams.”
However, Kohl was unsure of how many visitors come to Galax from the parkway because, until the visitors center was opened in April, there was no way to track that information.