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Eric Woolridge stands in front of the adventure playground at Rocky Knob Park, a project brought to fruition with his expertise and grant-writing skills. Kellen Moore | Watauga Democrat.

Originally published: 2013-01-07 10:28:02
Last modified: 2013-01-07 10:28:35

County tourism planner makes plans of his own

After almost four years championing outdoor recreation projects in Watauga County, director of tourism planning Eric Woolridge has left his position to strike out on his own.

During his time with the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority, Woolridge helped secure nearly $2 million in grants for projects designed to boost tourism appeal while improving the quality of life for locals.

Without his efforts, Watauga County might not have created Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park or the Watauga Gorge Park, a river access point near Old Watauga River Road.

It might not have set the foundation for the South Fork New River Greenway, a path linking the Boone Greenway with Brookshire Park. It wouldn’t have planned for an improved trail access on Holloway Mountain Road or river accesses at Green Valley Park and Pine Run Road.

It also would lack the Boone Area Outdoor Recreation Plan, a comprehensive document aimed at setting the tone for future endeavors.

“It’s amazing to look back in four years and think, wow, we got a lot of stuff done, but it came through a spirit of cooperation with the community, local leaders and from assistance from a variety of grant-making agencies,” Woolridge said.

Woolridge was hired in 2008 after the TDA board determined that outdoor recreation would be a major focus of its tourism promotion efforts. A 2001 graduate of Appalachian State University with a degree in community and regional planning, Woolridge had worked as long-range planner for Caldwell County for five years.

“When I first interviewed for the job, I just expressed that you’ve got to invest in people as much as anything else and create a real sense of ownership with each project that we do,” Woolridge said.

Aligning with passionate local people in groups such as Boone Area Cyclists and High Country Pathways, Woolridge embarked on a variety of projects that leveraged the TDA’s occupancy tax dollars.

He helped plan an Outdoor Recreation Summit at ASU in March 2010 and drafted the Boone Area Outdoor Recreation Plan, adopted in spring 2011 — both actions that helped formalize some of the county’s goals.

Woolridge helped the county earn roughly $550,000 in Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grants for Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park, a large plot off U.S. 421 that includes biking trails, parking, playground, picnic shelter and, in the future, restrooms.

After additional land was purchased, thousands of volunteer hours went into the project, which officially opened in May 2011.

“It means a lot to me as a community planner, and it’s something that for many generations into the future is going to continue to serve the area,” Woolridge said, adding that he has personally enjoyed using the park.

Similar design features linked the bike park to another project miles away: the Watauga Gorge Park. A spot for family picnics, fishing and boat access, the park was created through a land donation from the Holton family that served as a match for an $80,000 grant, Woolridge said.

Another $75,000 was earned to improve the Boone Fork Trail and a trailhead on Holloway Mountain Road near Blowing Rock. The design and engineering on that project is nearly complete, and work should begin this summer or fall, Woolridge said. A $65,000 grant was earned to create the South Fork New River Greenway, which will expand the path from Brookshire Park this year.

The TDA also earned $75,000 for river accesses at Pine Run Road and Green Valley Park and is waiting on the state contract to begin, he said.

Navigating grant requirements, local governments and diverse opinions might have driven others crazy, but Woolridge said it was something he came to embrace.

Melissa Weddell, a member of Boone Area Cyclists and High Country Pathways, said that was one of the things that impressed her most about Woolridge’s approach.

“He sees the big picture, and he has an amazing ability to work with many different stakeholders,” she said. “You never see him get frustrated. … He’s able to navigate that and really get everybody on the same table.”

Still, not every hope he had for the position was realized, Woolridge admits.

“I really wanted to help bring a public disc golf course to Watauga County,” he said. “I wish that a land opportunity would have come to fruition, but every project is cost-benefit, so it has to make sense. I’ve been unable to figure out a way to develop a disc golf project that made sense.”

But for all of his successes, Woolridge won the Sue Wilmoth Award for the Advancement of Tourism in August 2012.

His work also led other communities to approach him for advice and assistance, and it gave him a hunger for another challenge: starting his own firm.

Woolridge is now a proud partner, along with landscape architect Teresa Buckwalter, of Destination by Design, a regional planning, design and promotions firm.

The firm already has been commissioned by the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership agency that works on economic development in Appalachia, to develop a map of distinctive local food destinations across 13 states, Woolridge said.

The guide is expected to be published in American Heritage magazine in spring 2014, he said.

The new venture won’t take him far: the firm’s new office on King Street is within the same building and right across the hall from his former one.

Meanwhile, the TDA board is determining how it wants to proceed. The board could hire a replacement, contract with Woolridge’s firm or another firm to complete additional projects, or move away from outdoor recreation as the primary focus, said Wright Tilley, executive director of the TDA.

Tilley said he had mixed emotions about losing Woolridge, who he said has been a true asset.

“I’m certainly happy that he’s following his dream of creating his own company. I’m confident he’ll be successful with it,” Tilley said. “That being said, I hate to lose him as a full-time employee, because he’s done a lot for the TDA during his tenure there.”