A five-mile stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway just north of Pisgah Inn is closed until mid-July, so we left the parkway and headed through Asheville, North Carolina, on a series of roads including I-40. We needed gas and a few groceries so the detour wasn’t a big deal. Regular gasoline here ranges from $2.60 to $2.70, about 25 cents higher than South Georgia. A very rough stretch of road and construction north of Ashville made for even slower travel on the parkway than the normal 45 mph.
We stopped just outside Asheville at park headquarters. A two-year-old visitor center is across from the large parking lot. The visitor center reminds us somewhat of the visitor center at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Not as big, but still impressive with vaulted ceiling and lots of space. It seems to be in an odd location, out of the way and invisible from the parkway. There are only one or two other visitors, but it is a Monday afternoon, probably a slow day for travel on the parkway.
At headquarters we sought out Lisa Davis, National Park Service concessions manager for the parkway. Lisa indicated that Pisgah Inn is the only one of the parkway’s four lodging facilities to have signed a new ten-year agreement, the standard contract length for concessionaires following a major change in contract standards initiated by the government in 1998.
Bluffs Lodge, Rocky Knob Cabins, and Peaks of Otter are all operating under one-year extensions. The problem, of course, is concessionaires hesitate to put significant money into capital improvements that can’t be recovered over an extended period. Most concessionaires consider even ten years too short a period for adequate capital recovery. One-year rollover contracts generally result in very few long-term improvements getting done.
Each of the three lodging concessionaires (Forever Resorts operates two of the four locations) operates under a different contract, although all three stipulate a similar fee to the Park Service of 3 to 4 percent of revenues. Under the new contract agreements, 80 percent of those fees remain within the park while the other 20 percent is diverted to the U.S. Treasury. In addition to fees, concessionaires often have a separate required maintenance fund. For example, Pisgah Inn has a 1 percent maintenance and reserve fund to be used for NPS-approved projects at the inn.
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One of the many highlights of travel on the Blue Ridge Parkway is a stop at the Folk Art Center at milepost 382 near Asheville, North Carolina. Housed in a modern-looking building constructed in 1980, the Center is operated under a cooperative agreement between the National Park Service and the Southern Highland Craft Guild. Unlike most NPS concessionaire contracts that require a fee be paid by the concessionaire, the cooperative agreement with the Guild stipulates maintenance issues, but does not require that a fee be paid to the National Park Service. The current contract will soon expire and the terms of a new agreement may well produce a change.
The Folk Art Center is filled with a variety of high-quality regional handicrafts including quilts, pottery, stained glass, art glass, jewelry, clothing, and leather goods. All of the items are handcrafted by guild members who have been selected for membership by a jury of peers. Most of the crafts offered for sale have been purchased for resale by the guild, although more expensive items are on sold consignment.
The Southern Highland Craft Guild is a non-profit organization founded in 1930 to help market the handiwork of regional craftspeople. With 900 members, the guild sponsors a variety of educational events at the Folk Art Center. During our recent visit craftspeople were demonstrating weaving, quilting, and woodworking.
The Folk Art Center is a popular stop on the parkway and welcomes from 250,000 to 300,000 visitors annually. According to April Nance, public relations director of the guild, the most popular handicrafts are pottery and fiber items with price points between $20 and $50. Travelers are looking for medium-priced gifts that are easy to transport in a vehicle.
We have visited hundreds of craft shops and craft fairs during our many travels, but the quality of handicrafts offered at the Folk Art Center are among the best we have come across.
The Center is open daily 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. from April through December, and until 5:00 p.m. the remainder of the year. It is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.