There was a pull to the mountains: Deep listening in Watauga County

“There was a pull to the mountains,” explains a man leaning back in his seat and reflecting on his move to the highlands of North Carolina nearly two decades earlier. “There was no reason to come here except that it felt right.” He had packed up his belongings and relocated with his son, purchasing a house and finding a new home in the Blue Ridge.

Years later, however, he is staring down a property tax like nothing he has seen before. “Something must be wrong,” he explained to the local assessment office, showing them the bill that says his property value increased by 55% over the last year alone. 

“The same thing happened to a friend of mine,” chimes in another woman. “She lives in a generational house, but it’s gotten so expensive she might lose it. The tax bill comes due next month.” 

Many people in the room were drawn to the mountains, relocating to be in the cool damp hollers and high mountain tops. Others are from here, with family dating back generations. But all agree: This is the place they want to be their home. 

The problem is it’s difficult for working class people. “It’s a great little town,” says one young woman referring to the county seat of Boone, “but it’s damn expensive to live here.” 

Two major themes emerged at What’s Up Watauga, Down Home’s listening event in the county. 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. 

The first was housing. “Housing here is really hard to find. If it’s affordable it’s crappy and moldy,” said one woman, while another man chimed in that he knows a family of six living in a two bedroom apartment. 

“It’s hard to watch all these vacation homes sit empty eight months of the year while all my friends can’t find homes,” said a woman who cleans AirBNBs for a living. Another event participant mentions that local tent and RV camps are growing with local people making makeshift shelters their permanent homes. 

The second theme was wages and working conditions. The majority of the participants in the forum worked service sector jobs that support the tourism industry, many of these jobs being seasonal. The wages at these jobs are low and the conditions impossible: “I’m kept below 36 hours everywhere I work so they don’t have to pay for benefits,” said one participant while another said “I’ve worked for every ski lodge in Banner Elk and I’ve never had insurance.” 

Some people in the room raised concerns over business practices of local employers either, in the case of a ski resort, ignoring employee safety on site or, in the case of a bar, advising employees to turn a blind eye to the rampant rape culture that exists in a college and tourism town. 

These issues were compounded by a sense that the needs of local residents are being ignored as the towns and county play favor to wealthy outsiders, the local university, and business owners. One man summarized it this way: “Watauga County is a captive of the University and there is no industry here but tourism.” 

“We have beautiful natural resources, and I want to make sure we have all the resources that people need too,” said a mom, as everyone in the room nodded to agree, 

Down Home’s Watauga 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 Watauga County, register below to join us at our next Listening Session.

Interested in getting involved in Watauga County? Reach out to Austin Smith, our local Field Organizer at [email protected]!