Blowing Rock Continues Study for Wine and Culinary Institute

Private Developer Proposes Similar Facility in Banner Elk

As a steering committee continues work on a plan to establish a wine and culinary institute in Blowing Rock, which was first proposed in 2008, a Florida-based developer has proposed a culinary institute at Banner Elk Elementary School, which Avery County plans to sell after construction of a new Banner Elk Elementary is completed.

The Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce hired ConsultEcon, a consulting firm from Cambridge, Mass., to conduct a feasibility study for a wine and culinary institute in Blowing Rock.

Funding for the $55,000 feasibility study came from a $20,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Center and allocations from the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce, Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority, Watauga County Tourism Development Authority, Watauga County Economic Development Commission and the Yadkin Valley Winegrowers Association.

ConsultEcon presented the completed study to the Blowing Rock chamber in May.

“While we felt the study was good…we felt it needed some more work,” said Charles Hardin, executive director of the Blowing Rock Chamber.

The feasibility study found that the proposed institute, which would be a public-private venture, would come a little short of breaking even or making a profit, Hardin said. The steering committee is working to tweak the plans for the center to incorporate elements that will help the institute be self-sustaining, he said.

The committee is comprised of winery and business owners, representatives from the North Carolina Grape & Wine Council, N.C. Department of Agriculture, AdvantageWest, Johnson & Wales University and ASU.

The committee has divided work on the project into three components: wine, culinary and business model. The steering committee is continuing to work on the plan until the end of the year.

Hardin noted that North Carolina has almost 100 wineries.

“North Carolina is rapidly becoming a wine state,” Hardin said. “We believe that this is something that can greatly enhance the wine awareness for the state of North Carolina.”

The culinary portion of the institute will incorporate local food, he added.

“The High Country definitely needs to tap into [the local food movement] from a tourism perspective,” he said.

Once the steering committee completes its work, it will decide whether to proceed with the plan, and if so, it will then begin to put together a plan to raise funds for the institute. If feasible, the first fundraiser for the institute could take place during Blowing Rock’s Blue Ridge Wine and Food Festival in April 2011, where an official announcement about the new institute would be made.

“We all know that this is not the time to be raising money, not in our community…but it is a great time to be planning a fundraising plan,” Hardin said.

In Banner Elk, construction of the new elementary school, which is located behind Best Western, is about 30 percent complete, said Frank Wimbush, president of the Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce. The county plans to open the new school by August 2011 and to sell the old facility, but it hasn’t been put on the market yet, Wimbush said.

Several meetings have been held about what could be done with the old school property, including one in the spring hosted by Banner Elk Town Council members. At that meeting, developer John Cantadore presented a proposal for a culinary institute at the site.

Another group in town would like to see the old school be converted into a community center, said Wimbush, but “the overwhelming majority of people…favor the culinary institute for the economic benefit it would bring to the town.”

Hardin said the Blowing Rock Chamber and wine and culinary institute steering committee are aware of the proposed institute in Banner Elk but only have second-hand information about the proposal.

“Obviously two identical centers would not be good,” Hardin said. “We hope we would be differentiated in some manner.”