Ashe County August 2022

Population
27,797

County Seat
Jefferson

Median Income
$40,962

Population Density Designation
Rural

Our visit to Ashe County began on the Ashe County Campus of Wilkes Community College (WCC).

Ashe County has become an emerging tourist destination, particularly during COVID-19. This has created new economic opportunities for the county, but this boom has come with challenges. Workforce housing is one example. County leaders pointed out an increase in second homes for residents of other counties – particularly when combined with folks snapping up homes to rent on Airbnb and Vrbo – has driven up the cost while equally reducing the availability of workforce housing for residents.

Jeff Cox, the President of WCC, noted the county has a “wage problem,” even for those who are employed. The median wage in the county is 75% of the statewide median wage according to Cox, and this creates even more persistent challenges for one of the big questions for the college and assembled leaders: How do you move the needle on generational poverty?

One key for the county is to leverage their “exceptional broadband” and expand their local industrial park according to Chris Robinson, the Vice President of Workforce Development and Continuing Education, and other community leaders. Ashe County is also leaning in on outdoor recreation given their access to the New River, the Northern Peaks Trail, appealing roads for motorcyclists, proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway and their easy driving distance to Boone and Appalachian State University.

The county also has a larger pre-existing manufacturing base than many of its neighbors with American Emergency Vehicles and GE Aviation having a significant presence in the county.

Another key is for the county to continue to work to meet health care needs. Brian Yates, the CEO of Ashe Memorial Hospital, joined us to discuss the opportunities and challenges of a rural hospital trying to serve its county. Yates walked us through several innovative efforts the hospital has undertaken, including leaning in on international recruiting of talented health care providers and working with family physicians to provide C-sections and general delivery services for babies in the region. The hospital has also partnered with the community college to explore co-created positions that could be shared among nurses who could both work at the hospital and serve as a faculty member.

The innovations offered by the hospital run alongside persistent issues such as the lack of providers for mental health. “At any given time, we may be using up to half of our emergency room beds for mental health-related issues and involuntary commitments,” stressed Yates as he addressed the depth of the issues.

Food insecurity also remains an issue across the region. Kelly Vannoy, a community leader who helps run the Ashe Food Pantry, walked us through their work to distribute food to those in need. Vannoy noted the Food Pantry runs a backpack operation, drive-through food pantries and permanent locations on both the campus of the community college and the hospital. The hospital pantry was launched after a survey indicated that 78% of respondents in the county said they had to choose between food and medicine at certain times in their year.

Vannoy also thanked the entire Blue Cross NC team for traveling to Ashe County. Vannoy declared, “It means a lot that you came to see us. It would have been easy to skip us and just drive right on by.”

After our conversation around health and hunger, we traveled to West Jefferson to learn more about the work to revitalize the downtown area. As we snacked on local treats such as Ashe County cheese products, town leaders noted that while West Jefferson offers a picturesque view of surrounding mountains and small-town charm, their bustling downtown had once been largely made up of empty storefronts. The town used long-term planning, a repaving of their main thoroughfare by the Department of Transportation and the replacement of stop lights with four-way stops that causes drivers to slow down to view all of downtown as an inflection point. The town then invested in community-wide events that leaned in on varied assets including outdoor assets and cultural traditions alike.

The result today is both a vibrant tourist destination and a downtown that provides a launchpad for local entrepreneurs.

From downtown West Jefferson, we traveled deeper into Ashe County to visit the town of Lansing. Lansing has a population of 158 according to the last census. We visited Old Orchard Creek General Store to have coffee and speak to local residents. From the store, we traveled up to Old Orchard Creek Farm to take in the beautiful vista offered by the blueberry farm and have a community conversation about the opportunities and challenges for the region.

Meet Dr. Algie Gatewood

Dr. Algie Gatewood is only the fourth President to lead Alamance Community College (ACC) since it opened in 1958. During Dr. Gatewood’s tenure at ACC, the college won its largest ever bond referendum – nearly $40 million – in 2018 to fund a number of major capital projects and expansions. The college also secured $16 million in county funding in 2014 to build the Advanced Applied Technology Center. Other notable accomplishments include creating a Biotechnology Center of Excellence, introducing an Early College, facilitating an apprenticeship program, and introducing nearly two dozen new academic programs and articulation agreements with state universities.

U39702, 10/22