(Stokes News, The (Walnut Cove, NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 26--A unique partnership between North Carolina State University (NCSU) and the Stokes County Economic Development Commission (EDC) aims to create more lodging in the county to help increase tourism revenue.
The project involves undergraduate and graduate students from the NCSU School of Design who will work this spring on creating several cabin designs specifically tailored for Stokes' geography, culture and needs.
"This is something we have been working on for the past two to three years," said EDC Director Alan Wood. "We understand from history, and contacting several developers, that it is very unlikely that we will get a hotel of any significant size in the county."
Wood said that after examining several alternative approaches to increasing lodging opportunities the commission settled on the idea of trying to help local land owners build rental cabins.
"The idea is loosely based on things we have seen in Pigeon Forge and the Smokeys," said Wood. "That is how their lodging came to be. It works."
The Stokes plan developed as EDC board member Bruce Younts, his son Worth who is in the NCSU School of Design, and Wood discussed possibilities.
"Through Worth we reached out to one of his professors, Georgia Bizios, and we have been communicating with her since last summer," said Wood.
Bizios created a class that would allow her students to come tour the area and create cabin designs for four initial locations in the county. The students visited the county last week to tour potential sites and meet with the EDC.
"These will be proprietary designs that will be for our use only," said Wood. "Once we have the designs we will attempt to find funding to build two prototypes to use as models for the next 18-24 months."
He said the designs would be created to clear red tape in the permitting process and would be available for use for any county landowner. The hope is that landowners will step forward, invest in building cabins that could be rented to tourists, and add some additional revenue for local farmers.
Wood said that in addition to the free architectural designs, he is also working on finding grant funding to help with some of the construction costs and to help local residents develop business plans.
"We would reach out to graduate students to come in and help build business plans around having a cabin on your property," said Wood. "We would help to build business plans as far as marketing and what to expect in terms of cash flow and how to run it."
Wood said he also plans to reach out to local contractors and building material suppliers to see if partnerships could be worked out to lower costs of cabin construction.
"I hope I can find a couple of contractors who will see this as an opportunity to maybe become the cabin builders in Stoke County," he said. "If they sign on then I would promote them as the priority builders through out this campaign."
Bizios said the cabin project was first of its kind for NCSU.
"We have never designed cabins as a project, and we have never partnered with an economic development group before," she said, "But NC State has a long tradition of being involved with the community."
She said the project gives her students a chance to have real world experience that does not frequently occur in architectural study programs.
"Several of the studio courses have to be theoretical and have to give the students the opportunity to deal with complex buildings," she said. "This is more similar to an internship so the approach we are taking is more pragmatic. The scale of the structure is small, but the students need to develop it further and make it buildable, to think about how it will be built, and exactly how much it will cost. These projects will be more developed than they would be in other classes."
"In our studies we typically do not have to focus on budgets or any sort of real world stuff," agreed Worth Younts. "A lot of what we do is raw creativity. This project brings us a little bit down to earth. It focuses heavily on budgets, real world interaction, and creating something on a smaller scale than a civic or industrial building."
Another student working on the project, Kenan Frase, said he was excited to be developing designs for a specific geography and culture.
"You have to design something that the community wants to have," he said. "It is a study of the culture as much as the site."
The students will also focus on creative ways to reduce costs of water and septic systems for the cabins.
Community interested in plan
Wood said he already has four land owners who are interested in the plan and hoping to construct cabins once the designs are completed.
One of those landowners, Sam Booker, has been developing his property to be a place to host weddings.
"When a couple books us they say they have out of town guests and ask if there is a place for them to stay," he said. "So we started looking to see if there is a future down the road where we can expand our business model and maybe add some cabins or maybe do something more upscale like a cottage. We have even considered doing a micro hotel with about 20 rooms."
Need for lodging is great
"The only way you can make tourism pay the way it can and create more jobs is to get our visitors to spend more time here," said Wood. "The first step is to get them to stay overnight. Their spending goes up by a factor of two for every night they spend, so getting them to stay here is key.
Hanging rock State park gets between 500,000 and 600,000 visitors a year, according to Wood, and many of those would stay longer if they could book overnight accommodations.
"We did a survey in 2010 and about 70 percent of the visitors are from outside of the area," he said. "About 70 percent of those said they would extend their stay if there was more lodging.
"That gives you roughly 300,000 people who say they would extend their stay if the opportunity existed,' said Wood, adding that currently there are only 45-50 beds available for tourists. "We have a lot of visitors, but we do not see the economic impact that we could.
"Once the lodging increases then you are going to start seeing more restaurants, and then it will just build on its self," he added. "But without some type of lodging you never get to that next level."
Landowners interested in participating in the cabin project should contact Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org or 336-593-2496.
"We need local citizens to step up and participate in this project," he added. "It is the only way this is going to work."
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.
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