Growing, Growing, Grown

Watauga County in the 1990s

The 1990’s were the decade when residents of Watauga County got more. More students, more tourists, more residents. More buildings, more businesses. More roads, more traffic, more parking headaches. More Christmas trees. More jobs, more income. More of everything, it seemed; and also more of the thought that perhaps that the ‘more’ could turn into too much.

Growth was coming from all directions, as plans for expanding routes 321 and 421 were being both expounded and denounced, and the DOT brought up again the idea for a Boone Bypass along Highway 105. The announcement of a projected asphalt plant brought an instant and successful fight from residents – forming Citizens Against Pollution – to stop it coming into their Roby Green Road neighborhood. That would later translate into a moratorium on certain polluting industries in Watauga County.

Environmentalists as well as developers made huge inroads in the area, with a Save Howard’s Knob initiative that brought land-use planning to the fore. In Boone, the Greenway became a reality and popular recreational destination. Some forms of growth were being welcomed by just about one and all, as Choose & Cut Christmas tree operations integrated agriculture and tourism in a unique partnership to boost the local economy. The Christmas tree industry flourished, keeping mountain farming alive to complement the seasonal tourism. Appalachian State showed a new look, with the beginnings of a nearly billion dollar upgrade of renovations and new buildings, including the centerpiece Convocation Center.

ASU also grew mightily in students, going from 11,650 in 1990 to over 12,500 in 1999. Downtown Boone grew into itself, with small, locally owned businesses filling up just about every available space, completing a decade of renaissance. Medical facilities, non-profits, low-impact recreation, entrepreneurs, mountain biking, resort and second-home construction; name it and it grew. Perhaps the best indicator of this decade of change was the response it generated and how it was handled; representatives from across the Watauga County spectrum; government, business, education, services, neighborhoods and communities met in a year-long effort to get a handle on what was happening and how to best manage it. That entity, reporting its findings and recommendations in the last weeks of the year and the decade, was called the Watauga County Growth Commission.

ASU's Convocation Center

Largest Single Construction Project in Watauga History

Spanning the years 1993 through 1999, and the intersection of Rivers Street and Blowing Rock Road, Appalachian State University’s George M. Holmes Convocation Center is the largest, costliest, and most controversial structure ever built in the High Country.

Now approaching a completion date slated for August, 2000, the Convo center has always represented enviable progress for some, and intractable problems for others. When an ASU study group met in 1993, they determined the need for the sports/entertainment/classroom/meeting complex at a time of continued growth for the university.

That report coincided with the arrival at ASU of Vice-chancellor for Business Affairs Jane Helm, on whose desk the project fell. Planning started immediately. And with that announcement came the protests; from in and outside the university a loose-knit coalition of environmentalists, students, faculty, and citizens worried about its impact on traffic, parking, flooding, and the aesthetics of the corner regarded as the entrance to both the town and college.

The university promised, and devised, flood mitigation and a greenspace in an area – floodplain - already prone to this chronic problem, but critics charged the loss of the ballfield would still make flooding worse downstream, in the town. When the North Carolina General Assembly approved $35 million in funding in 1994, university officials declared the project a reality. And so it has proved to be true, as two years ago this month ground was broken on the 200,000 square foot facility December 5, 1997.

This week, residents and visitors alike can see a nearly completed exterior and surroundings, with Rivers Street re-routed, the entry-way park in place, and the stone, brick, and now ASU trademark green roof making an impressive statement.Photo courtesy of ASU & Mike Rominger. The multiple-use facility will house the new basketball and sports arena, holding upwards of 9,000 people, and constructed to also host circuses, trade shows, concerts, and other ASU and community functions. It will become the home of the university’s Health & Leisure Studies Department, including testing and observation laboratories, offices, meeting spaces, and classrooms.

More than 50,000 square feet of the facility have been constructed to meet these academic needs. Starting in the 2000-2001 school year, both the men’s and women’s basketball teams and programs will be centered, and perform, at the Convo Center. The first event scheduled for summer, 2000, is an event featuring Boone’s own Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and head of Samaritan’s Purse. And for those worried about parking, only seventy-five new spaces have been allocated on the premises, but new parking lots and garages are planned for just off Rivers Street in the immediate future. The convo center will no doubt come to define many changes of life in Watauga County, but one constant change above all; that growth is here to stay.

Innocence And Experience

Jeni Gray, Daniel Lee Bring Reality To Watauga County

As residents of our peaceful mountains ponder the common occurrance of deaths in larger cities, we can consider the murder that for many brought the woes of the world right onto our doorstep. On September 26, 1989, Jeni Gray, age 27, a popular reporter for the Appalachian State News Bureau, went out for a walk in downtown Boone before planning to meet her dad to go to church.

She disappeared that day, and was not found until more than two weeks later in the Triplett community of Watauga County October 9. She had been raped and strangled with her own clothes. September 29 another ASU student had come forward with a story about a man who abducted her while jogging, a man who while holding her had told another story of how he had raped and murdered another student just a week before. With Daniel Lee arrested and in custody, 1990 began with a courtroom drama that revealed evil in its pure form.

Pretrial motions began in April, with Superior Court Judge Charles Lamm hearing from defense attorneys Chester Whittle and Jeff Hedrick. Lee was charged with one count of first-degree murder, three counts of sexual assault, and kidnapping. The murder charge was a capital offense, bringing the possibility of the death penalty. The Motion to Change Venue was granted, and trial scheduled for April 16 in Avery County.

Jury selection began on April 13, and while the selection process was underway Lee filed pleas of guilty to the kidnapping and rape charges, a plea rejected by District Attorney Tom Rusher who was trying the case for the state. When Lee subsequently pleaded guilty to the murder, the state accepted that plea and the jury was charged with a sentencing recommendation; either life without parole or death by lethal injection. The surviving student testified during this phase, calmly describing how Lee told her of murdering Gray, how “she was hard to kill.”

The defense presented family members and medical testimony that Lee’s violent behavior had begun with the diagnosis of a brain aneurysm. But descriptions of the brutality of the crime carried the verdict, and on April 26 the six men and women deliberated only seven hours before sentencing Lee to death. The defendant showed no emotion.

He was also sentenced to four life terms for the rape and kidnapping of Gray, and set for execution in June of 1990. But North Carolina law brings automatic appeal of death sentence cases, and Lee died in Raleigh Central Prison from his medical condition before he could be brought to the state’s final justice.

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