Small Town, Big Money

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Posted: March 12, 2014, 6:30 p.m.
by Addison Viani.

A few years ago, Highlands, N.C., was a simple, quaint town visited by tourists as a weekend mountain getaway. Today, there is a new reason people are traveling to experience the beauty of Highlands. It is not just because of its beautiful location atop a plateau in the Blue Ridge Mountains or the popular hiking trails. It is not only because of the exquisite dining or breathtaking waterfalls and sightseeing. The $65 million face lift of Old Edwards Inn and Spa has put the small town at the top of tourists’ must-see lists.

Highlands, with a population of about 1,000, has become a destination tourists are booking several months in advance to experience. These tourists do not only want to spend time exploring the outdoors, but spend time enjoying the many amenities Old Edwards Inn and Spa has to offer.

Old Edwards Inn and Spa (OEI) has been winning numerous awards and was listed, just last year, on Forbes Travel Guide as one of the “Hot 20” luxury resorts in the world. The success of OEI within the past few years has given an economic boost to the town of Highlands.

The economic growth of Highlands is just as important to its small businesses as it is for the town as a whole. The Highlands Chamber of Commerce’s goal, according to its website, is “maintaining a vibrant economic climate while nurturing our environment and lifestyle for our year round and second home residents is the goal of the Highlands Chamber of Commerce.”

The Chamber of Commerce executive director, Bob Kieltyka, discussed two key economic drivers for Highlands — tourism and hospitality.

“Hospitality/tourism remained consistently strong throughout the recession with 2008-2009 posting a slight dip in hotel accommodations taxes,” said Kieltyka. “With the exception of 2008-2009, hotel accommodations tax revenues have increased steadily, driven in large part by the marketing efforts and growth of the Old Edwards Inn Hospitality Group and the promotion of Highlands as both a year-round vacation destination as well as a wedding destination.”

“OEI has made a major investment in the community in many ways beginning with its purchase, renovation and expansion of the original historic hotel into a destination resort complete with a world class spa, superlative dining, and those amenities and experiences that the well traveled have come to expect,” Kieltyka said. “Its investment in the community has created many jobs, provided work to other businesses — including construction, real estate and other local businesses — and contributed significantly to sales taxes and other local revenue. OEI has also invested time and money in supporting numerous local causes, nonprofit groups and the arts.”

One of the town’s popular attractions, the Main Street, is six blocks of shops offering a wide variety of merchandise. Most of these small businesses had to make adjustments to accommodate the large number of tourists traveling to stay at the award-winning resort.

Jerry Moore, owner of Kilwin’s Chocolate & Ice Cream of Highlands, said that the past four years have been the most prosperous years of business for him.

“I think OEI certainly helps with our sales, simply based on the number of people that come for weddings and other events,” Moore said. “We also saw an improvement in the economy last year, which I believe helped our cause.”

Although Old Edwards Inn and Spa has made an great economic impact on Highlands’ small businesses, its quaint qualities will always remain. “I do not foresee us losing the quaint small town feel despite the growth of OEI,” Moore explained. “I think OEI is simply allowing Highlands to operate to its fullest potential and setting the bar for excellence.”

Highlands will remain a destination people will retreat to in order to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Old Edwards Inn and Spa has not only brought new commerce to Highlands, but new experiences and memories made by tourists from all over the world.

One Comment

  1. Jillian K.

    First of all, I love this piece. I come from a fairly small town outside Philadelphia and always appreciate when writers take the time to focus on the new and exciting things going on within small towns. With that in mind, the impact the Old Edwards Inn and Spa is having on the small town of Highlands, N.C., is exactly what happened to my town. King of Prussia, Penn., used to be home to a small, charming mall from the early 1960s through the 1980s. Initially built in a pasture, the mall is now surrounded by three major highways and has expanded to more than 400 stores and restaurants. The mall is now expanding to become the largest mall in the country at about 2.6 million square feet. The amount of economic capital invested and returned is astounding, with a now booming housing market and total population of 20,000 and rising. This seems great, practically everything the town’s officials wanted in terms of economic growth and development; however, the one thing that happened to King of Prussia is exactly what the Highlands officials say will not happen to their town: “losing the quaint small town feel” despite growth. From my perspective of growing up in the situation, if the Highlands wishes to keep that small town feel, they need to be firm in that position. The rush of economic growth and public notoriety can swallow up the ideals that built the town itself. I think a follow up story would be great for this topic to see if the town actually does stick to its ideals or if it succumbs to the notoriety of the public. The organic nature of an undeveloped town is beautiful and respectable. It would be a shame for the culture of the town to be lost to new tourism and economic development.

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