Life in our Foothills July 2023 – First Peak of the Blue Ridge Visitor Center – Opening Eyes to All That’s Amazing in Polk County
Published 2:30 pm Wednesday, July 26, 2023
Melinda Massey had some big challenges when she took on the job as the Polk County Travel & Tourism Director. One of the biggest was to figure out a way to get people to pull over and stay a while. Millions of tourists pass through on I-26 and US 74 each year, sometimes passing us by for better-known tourist magnets like Asheville and the Great Smokies.
But hard work does not discourage Melinda, a certified Travel Marketing Professional. One of her first tasks was to create a brand image of the area based on what makes Polk County unique. While tourists might be heading to the higher mountains, they’re passing through here first.
It wasn’t long before that proverbial lightbulb went off in Melinda’s head. It’s here in Polk County where people get their first views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s here where that initial glimpse causes hearts to beat just a little faster. And the mountain that rises a bit above the others is named Tryon Peak with an elevation of around 3,200 feet above sea level.
So, she formed a small committee and with a bit of brainstorming and soul-searching, the name First Peak of the Blue Ridge was chosen for our destination. And it’s the perfect description as is witnessed daily by travelers and would-be tourists. Head up I-26 West or over US 74 West and you’ll understand the beauty of our county. Those mountains you see, those mountains you get your first peek of…are Polk County mountains. The job that Melinda and her staff have is to get those travelers to stop.
And stop they do. Some notice the strategically placed “Visitor Information” signs, some are just curious about what the area has to offer and others are planning on staying a few days and want ideas. Travelers might just need directions or a suggestion for a place to have lunch. A few ask for help making reservations for a place farther up the road. But they all have one thing in common; they all leave with a warm feeling thanks to Melinda and her fellow staffers Effie May Carter, Debbie Hester and Christine Mariotti.
It’s a busy office. In addition to drop-ins, the crew handles phone requests, email requests and website inquiries. Specially picked information packets are mailed out daily. Welcome bags are prepared for local groups to give out at events and are also available for walk-ins who might stop by when the office is closed.
The website, www.firstpeaknc.com is full-featured and is constantly being updated. It could be described as simply amazing.
The website includes a treasure of information on over 500 tourism-related businesses and places in Polk County. And it’s a service to those local businesses that comes at no cost to them. The website includes listings on Polk County lodging of all types (motels, bed & breakfasts and inns, vacation rentals, campgrounds), restaurants, shopping and recreational activities. The site includes photos, links, contact info, an interactive locator map, and even a link to add something to a “favorites list” as you build your Polk County stay.
To the staff, it’s a never-ending challenge to keep the listings current. Hardly a day goes by without a dozen details that need changing, but Melinda is quick to point out that the staff sees it as a labor of love. My guess is the staff knows more about this county than anyone.
If Iron Key Brewing had a Polk County Info trivia night, the First Peak Team would breeze to an easy victory.
Another impressive feature of the website is a comprehensive listing of upcoming events that would be interesting to visitors. An abbreviated version of just what’s ahead in the next week is available to download and can be sent to your email inbox each Wednesday. They also publish a listing of local restaurants that is updated monthly.
The First Peak Visitor Center, as it is known, occupies the old Tryon Federal Bank building on the corner of Mills and Walker Streets. Melinda had just started with the county Travel and Tourism office in 2006 when it was relocated from Tryon to the county-owned building. The building and gardens have blossomed over many years, changing from a plain landscape to a welcoming corner for Columbus. Melinda’s vision and personal gardening skills along with help from the Daffy Jills Garden Club in the early years plus encouragement and funding from the Polk County Appearance Commission made big differences in the looks and appeal of the building. Later, Melinda worked with Thompson Landscape Professionals to plan and install additional elements.
The Visitor Center is a total package that supports our economy. Melinda estimates that around 15,000 people visit the center each year in addition to all the phone and email requests. Tourism is an important business in Polk County…and it’s growing. An annual study conducted by Visit North Carolina found that, in 2021, over 300 Polk County jobs were directly attributable to tourism, and the economic impact of visitor spending locally was over $55 million dollars. That spending generated a $229 tax savings for each county resident in 2021.
While the Visitor Center is a Polk County government undertaking, it is a self-supporting department. Funds for the Center come from a three percent occupancy tax that visitors pay on their lodging bill. This doubles to six percent if they’re staying inside the city limits of our three towns. The towns keep that extra amount to promote their individual towns. It’s a win-win for Polk County. Melinda says, “The visitor of today pays to bring the visitors of tomorrow.”
Melinda and her staff love interacting with guests when they stop in. She recalls more than a few folks who will say, “I drove through this area in the ‘60s as a teenager with my parents and we stopped and had the most wonderful meal – do you know where we ate?” Melinda muses, “And we can answer, and they can still eat there! Caro-Mi on Highway 176. That’s amazing.”
Polk County residents might not realize just how special we are. Melinda makes a point to say we have three history museums as well as the House of Flags in the county. “There’s something free to do almost every day on our events calendar – and you can hear live music nearly every day around the county,” reflects Melinda. I really love getting to welcome visitors and anyone needing some directions or ideas. I hope we can offer them the service they need to help them have the best time while they’re here, whether that means relaxing or packing every minute with something to do.”
You can tell she loves her job.
More to Know:
The First Peak Visitor Center is located at 20 East Mills Street in downtown Columbus. The Center is staffed Monday through Saturday, but the door is literally always open. (A small vestibule is open 24/7 with an assortment of local travel info). The website, www.FirstPeakNC.com, is also available around the clock and showcases pretty much everything Polk County has to offer. From the website, visitors can request additional info including the latest First Peak Visitor Guide, and subscribe to the weekly events newsletter.
Contact the Center at: visit@FirstPeakNC.com. 828/ 894-2324 or toll-free at 800/ 440-7848.