Ashe County, NC
It was a Saturday morning and the sidewalks in West Jefferson were already crowded. Vendors at the farmer’s market were barely able to get a moment to sit down as visitors admired their pottery and weighed the early season greenhouse tomatoes in their hands. Two puppies watched the passersby from the window of a curio shop, while a small line formed outside a brewery as it opened for the lunch crowd.
West Jefferson has changed over the years and so has Ashe County. Once sleepy main streets now bustle with weekend tourists and mountain trails host families up from the Piedmont for the day. But just a mile out of town, a group of local residents sat in a small circle talking about the place they call home.
Living in a place with such natural beauty is something that no one in the room took for granted, and no one seemed to mind sharing it with the weekend visitors. But the reality is, Ashe County needs to make its growing tourism industry work for the people who live here.
That is one of the themes that emerged from Down Home’s first Ashe County Listening Session, aptly named Ashe County Talks! Designed to hear from local residents about what local issues matter most to them, Down Home’s listening sessions are taking the time and space to make sure that our movements are locally led and locally grown.
It didn’t take long for issues related to tourism to surface in Ashe County. When asked the opening question of “What keeps you up at night?” the first response from the group was immediate: “Housing. No one can afford a place to live here.”
One local resident explained that with so many homes becoming AirBNBs for tourists that few places remain for local families to rent or buy. “Some rentals are nearly $2,000 a month, or they are the awfulest trailers you have seen in your life.”
She went on to describe picking up a friend during a rainstorm recently and seeing water running out of the electrical outlets. “She is paying $500 a month to rent that trailer for her family, and the landlord won’t keep it up.”
The Need for Good Jobs
“There’s just not the jobs here to afford the kind of rent it takes to get a decent place,” explained another participant, citing how most local jobs are in the service industry to support tourism and pay low wages.
“The highest compliment you can get here is ‘You are a hard worker,’” explained one participant. “And that’s true. People work really hard here, but they don’t have a lot to show for it.” Another explained that one big employer closed even after infrastructure was built for it, and other big employers seem to ask a lot of the local tax base to remain.
“The wages just aren’t high enough. People can’t afford to buy toilet paper. It’s that bad.”
Down Home’s Ashe County Listening Sessions are a part of our 10,000 Conversations Project. Our organization will be talking to 10,000 rural North Carolinians this year to hear what issues matter most to them, who they think is responsible, and what we can do to create change.
Want to make your voice heard, too? Join our 10,000 Conversations Project by taking our online survey here. Or, if you’re near Ashe County, register below to join us at our next Listening Session on May 14th.
Interested in getting involved in Ashe County? Reach out to Dolly Reaves, our local Field Organizer at [email protected]