ASHE COUNTY — After bidding goodbye to 2020, town and county leaders share excitement and anticipation for what is in store for the development and betterment of the county in 2021.

Ashe County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kitty Honeycutt shared a plethora of continued projects and new improvements geared toward providing positive experiences for both locals and visitors.

Honeycutt said as far as COVID-19, the Chamber continues to partner with AppHealthCare and Ashe Memorial Hospital to distribute accurate information and be a resource for guidance to help the community continue to be healthy.

“As far as businesses, we plan to continue our grant, the “Pay it Forward” grant program which has awarded about $150,000 so far to small businesses in the county to help those that have suffered financial loss from COVID,” Honeycutt said.

She said the Chamber is hopeful to be able to play an instrumental role in planning some events such as The Blue Ridge Brutal bike ride which is scheduled tentatively for Aug. 21. Any money raised will benefit the Ashe Advantage project for student scholarships and Ashe Civic Center expenses.

For the past four years, the Chamber has been a sponsor of MerleFest. The festival is anticipated to be held in September. If the event is able to be held this year, the Chamber plans to continue its sponsorship.

Honeycutt said they wish to do whatever they can to support any local events that are held in 2021.

According to Honeycutt, the Chamber has revamped its event calendar. It will be launched within the next week and anybody, Chamber member or not, will be able to submit events for approval to be included in the calendar. All events will be divided into visitor events, local-appeal events and music events.

The calendar is available at the Chamber website and can be accessed by clicking on the “Events Calendars” tab.

Honeycutt said they are hopeful for programs such as Leadership Ashe Program, the Dick Miller Youth Leadership Program to start up again. These programs have been put on hold due to the pandemic.

They plan to continue event programs such as Small Business of the Year, Outrageously Good Customer Service, the Cabot Hamilton Community Advocacy Award and Nonprofit of the Year. They will also be giving scholarships to Ashe County High School seniors, Ashe Early College students and homeschooled seniors.

“We still have our small business consulting group, which is free and confidential,” Honeycutt said. “We encourage businesses, especially now during this time of changing the way we work and some uncertainty, to reach out if they would like to be partnered with a consultant.”

The Chamber will also launch their new Ashe County Guide which will be released in March.

The townships of Ashe County have a lot of projects and improvements to look forward to in 2021, all which aim toward improving the lives of residents.

The Town of West Jefferson has a couple of projects that are in the process for 2021 that will be a boost to the historic downtown area.

Town Manager Brantley Price shared some of the plans which will provide an economic boost to the area and an improvement to the local shopping and visitor experience.

2021 will bring the renovation of the old Friendly Shoe Store into a new attractive retail space. The renovation of the Old Hotel into a boutique hotel will also begin this year, which is a project that may take years to complete.

“A boutique hotel in Downtown in a historic building like the Old Hotel will make for a historic destination for West Jefferson and Ashe County and will be an economic boost to the area,” Price said.

Such projects will add to the continued growth of West Jefferson, even during the difficult times brought forth by the global pandemic.

Price added that the U.S. 221 highway project from Lowes Home Improvement Store to the town of Jefferson may cause some disruptions and delays, but as with other sections that are now complete, will benefit the area once they are finished.

“The town hopes to see the end or the slow of the COVID-19 pandemic that changed the lives of every individual and how businesses operate,” Price said.

Lansing Mayor Mack Powers says the town has a lot to look forward to in 2021.

The replacement of the Hwy. 194 bridge is nearing completion and the town expects regular traffic flow to resume shortly.

According to Powers, the completion of the pedestrian portions, along with final paving will take place in April with the return of warmer weather.

“This has been a difficult project due to limited room to work and some unforeseeable obstacles,” Powers said. “Many thanks to NCDOT and Blythe Construction for working to maintain traffic flow through town during construction while also maintaining public access to Creeper Trail Park. And a big thank-you to our friends and neighbors for their patience throughout the project.”

Powers added that a grant from NCDOT will allow for development of a Bicycle and Pedestrian Project Acceleration Plan this year. The town will be working with Traffic Planning & Design, Inc., to evaluate existing conditions, identify projects relevant to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, develop and prioritize these projects and help to identify potential funding resources.

According to Powers, another sidewalk improvement project which was planned for 2020 and postponed due to the bridge construction will be completed this summer.

Greater Lansing Area Develop Committee, a local nonprofit organization, continues working to improve the town through beautification projects, regular litter and creek cleanup projects, searching for and applying for grant programs to help fund the projects they develop.

The Lansing Volunteer Fire Department received an EMS grant and will be getting some new equipment this year. They have also just completed a substation in Helton which will begin operation soon.

‘Their barbecues have been greatly missed and they hope to be able to resume them as soon as they can safely,” Powers said.

Another large project that will be making headway during 2021 is the Lost Province Center for Cultural Arts. LPCCA is a nonprofit organization that now owns the historic Lansing School and will be revitalizing the school to provide a center for teaching arts and crafts, culinary arts, music and much more related to Ashe’s mountain heritage.

According to Powers, the town looks forward to working with LPCCA to achieve their goals.

“The precautions and restrictions that have been necessary due to COVID-19 have been difficult for everyone, including the town of Lansing,” Powers said. “With continued precautions for a while longer and distribution of the vaccines, perhaps we can once again have the many events we enjoy. We hope to get back to Music in the Park, Bingo, Community Yard Sale, Fire Department barbecues and so many other events we missed in 2020.”

Melissa Bracey, who serves as Director of Communications & Compliance for AppHealthCare shared some of the regional health department's plans for 2021.

"As we look ahead to a new year, we know we will still be working diligently to address COVID-19," Bracey said. "We will continue to partner with state and local agencies to promote prevention to slow the spread of this virus."

According to Bracey, AppHealthCare is hopeful as it continues vaccine distribution in the coming year. Throughout the coming months, the health department will be working closely with local hospitals and emergency management to coordinate vaccination following the North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services (NC DHHS) phases.

Also this year, AppHealthCare will be working on the Community Health Assessment which is compiled every 3 years in collaboration with local hospitals and community coalitions.

"We work together with the community to identify health priorities that will drive the work of Ashe County," Bracey said about the assessment. "This report also aims to produce actionable items for our community to take to improve public health."

Cathy Barr, director of economic development, shared some of the department’s plans for 2021.

In August 2020, Ashe Economic Development acquired 41.7 acres off of Ray Taylor Road to create Phase II of Ashe Industrial Park. According to Barr, this was an important first step toward attracting new businesses to Ashe. However, prospects are not generally interested in raw land. Instead, new businesses are looking for “shovel-ready” sites to minimize risk and maximize speed to market. Shovel ready sites have environmental clearances, infrastructure in place, title work, soil analysis and the initial planning stages completed.

Looking ahead to 2021, Ashe Economic Development hopes to begin developing shovel-ready sites. Barr said in order to capitalize the project, Ashe Economic Development has sought grants and/or loans from the Blue Ridge Energy Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant program, the Golden Leaf Foundation Community-Based Grant and an Appalachian Regional Commission Infrastructure Grant.

Award announcements are anticipated sometime during the second quarter of 2021, according to Barr.

Patty Gambill, who serves as the coordinator for emergency management, provided information about what her department anticipates for the new year.

“As with everyone else, how we proceed in 2021 will be dependent on the pandemic response and guidance in 2021,” Gambill said.

According to Gambill, they would like to refocus their efforts on a project that the Ashe County Emergency Management Office and the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office started working on in 2018.

“We’ve been trying to bring rescue task force training to Ashe County law enforcement, fire and rescue departments so that we can form our own rescue task force to respond to active shooter incidents,” Gambill said.

She added that Chief Deputy Danny Houck was involved with rescue task force operations during his time with the Boone Police Department and some of their paramedics, including Ashe County Rescue Squad Captain Robert Poe, have been interested in the concept for several years.

According to Gambill, the premise is to divide trained personnel into teams pairing two medically trained paramedics, EMTs or first responders with two law enforcement officers.

Each team will don protective gear and enter an area or facility during an ongoing active shooter event to rapidly assess, triage and extract the wounded.

“It has been very effective in other areas in saving lives and we believe it will enhance Ashe County’s response to such incidents as well as strengthen the working relationship between our emergency services organizations,” Gambill said.

She added that there is not an established curriculum for the class in North Carolina, so it is very difficult to find instructors. According to Gambill, Houck managed to locate an instructor and schedule a class for March 2020 but, unfortunately, they were forced to cancel because of the pandemic.

Gambill said they hope to reschedule that class when possible.

Brian Yates, who serves as chief executive officer for Ashe Memorial Hospital provided some information about what the hospital anticipates for 2021.

According to Yates, AMH plans to continue to work to increase access to primary care for the community. The hospital is also excited about its new partnership with Ashe County Schools and becoming the local school system’s official healthcare provider.

Yates said during 2021, AMH hopes to complete the renovation of the second floor that has been delayed due to the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, we want to put our community first and ensure our ability to care for those in need,” Yates said.

The renovation was originally scheduled for July 2020; but since the renovation will unfortunately require closing some patient rooms, the project has been put on hold.

Suzanne Moore, librarian at the Ashe County Public Library has expressed hopes for the upcoming year. In previous years, the library has held a program called VITA which allows individuals to file their taxes for free. In 2020, VITA had to cancel appointments from the end of March to the beginning of April due to COVID-19.

“This year we are still faced with a lot of restrictions so, our VITA program will be managed differently to maintain a COVID-safe environment,” Moore said.

Moore also spoke about the library’s Talking Service Book Club which will host special programming in January and February. This club will allow discussions on veteran-written books and follow up discussions with the authors as well.

“These meetings give veterans a chance to visit and reflect on their experiences together,” Moore said.

Director of Environmental Services Scott Hurley discussed the new N.C. 163 convenience center site, located across the street from Blue Ridge Energies, which is scheduled to begin this spring.

Hurley said as far as structural size, the site will be the same size as the U.S. 221 site and will provide all of the same services as the existing convenience centers.

According to Hurley, if construction begins in the spring and all goes as planned, the site would be operational by late fall.

Ashe County Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Anderson expressed his hopes for the upcoming year by creating a new strategic plan for the county.

“The pandemic has still affected a lot so we are updating the master plan for Parks and Rec. We have signed a contract and are hoping to get a schedule for that. We can get a strategic plan for the next 10 years which involves a lot of public feedback,” Anderson said.

In preparation for the new year, the Ashe County Parks and Recreation hope to take control of the current middle school in Warrensville, which is being rebuilt in Jefferson. This will allow expansion and easier access to more people in the county.

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