The Blue Ridge Experience

It all started in the 1920s, with the construction of Lake Blue Ridge. That bought the first second home owners to Blue Ridge. At the time, the big attraction was Muskie fishing (they tell me there are still a few left in the lake). For many years, the development around the lake was the only second home development in the county. That started to change in the 1980s, with the growth of the cabin market.

When I came in 1986, there were already several well known mountain developments. The four-lane, Hwy 515, only went to Ellijay then, but when it was completed to Blue Ridge, the trend accelerated.

The subsequent years saw the redevelopment of the old downtown, which had become a virtual ghost town. In the early days, all I can remember open downtown was Thomas Insurance and Hampton Hardware. A lot of it was boarded up before a visionary by the name of Bo Chance started buying those buildings up and renovating them. A whole lot of people thought he was crazy, but I imagine now that he’s laughing at life, as we used to say.

By the year 2001, most of the old downtown had been – or was in the process of being – redeveloped. Today, it’s crammed with interesting shops, restaurants, and taverns, making it a destination shopping experience. There are supposed to be something north of 800 businesses downtown.

There’s almost too much to do in the Blue Ridge area, but here are a few suggestions.

Many people who visit our area rent a cabin for the week or weekend, which allows you to get a real feel for our lifestyle.

Attractions include Mercier Orchards and our many festivals. INOLA is the redevelopment of what was originally built as a replica New England village, and later became a private residence. It was well before it’s time as a tourist attraction, but it’s an amazing place with a replica church, tavern, and post office.

Our restored downtown, with its shops, boutiques, and restaurants, is one of the major charms of the entire area. The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway brings thousands to Blue Ridge every year.

One reason it’s so popular is that if you have both outdoors people and people who would rather shop or hang out, you can split up for the day and agree to meet at a downtown restaurant for dinner. The outdoor people can go hiking or fishing, and the shopping people can hit the shops.

On the more fine dine side of the scale, there’s the Black Sheep and Harvest on Main. For a more casual experience, and maybe a few local microbrews, there’s Chester’s and Masseria, a Mediterranean concept that also has great thin crust pizza. There’s an Irish pub, the Boro Inn, run by a genuine Irishman. (Brendan Doyle, the proprietor, is what my father would have called a character. He used to be the priest at the downtown Catholic Church.)

If you want to visit McCaysville, Kenny’s Pizza & Subs is one of my favorites. Great thin crust pizza, classic cheese steak, subs, and a real grouper basket.

The Blue Ridge Brewery remains unfortunately closed, but there are two craft breweries in town, Grumpy Old Men and the Fannin Brewing Company, where you can sample the beers.

The Arts Center on West Main, next to the courthouse, is worth a visit. The Arts Association is on a mission to make Blue Ridge one of the top art communities in the country, and they seem in a fair way to do it. In one of the rare moments of sanity in Fannin County politics, we gave the old courthouse to the Arts Association, probably to escape the deferred maintenance.

If there’s a festival going on, by all means give it a try. Festivals are a great mountain tradition. Our best known festivals are the Troutfest, Spring Arts in the Park, the Labor Day Barbecue, the Blues & BBQ Festival, Fire & Ice (with a Chili Cookoff), and Fall Arts in the Park.

If it’s summer, visit a farmer’s market. The one across from the courthouse is a favorite on Saturday mornings, but it’s pretty small. The Union County Farmer’s Market in Blairsville is also good. It’s a drive, but my personal favorite is the Delano Community Market, a Mennonite community project, just north of Benton, Tennessee. There are directions on my “Let’s Get Outdoors!” tab, under “Day Trips.” You could do Goforth Creek on the way back, also under the “Day Trips” tab.

Or, just go old school, as we often do. Take a long walk in the woods. Then sit on the porch or in front of the fire all day, depending on the weather. In the evening, do something no one does any more, called “watching it get dark.” Our area is still one of the darkest in the southeast, so go outside and look at the stars. (Buck Bald, up in Tennessee, is even better.) Listen to the katydids and tree frogs. We all need to slow down occasionally and Blue Ridge is a perfect place to do it. You may be surprised by what you start thinking, and by how rewarding it can be just to be mindful of the weather and your thoughts.

A Little History of Our Growth, For Better or Worse

We’ve been on the national map since the February 2002 issue of the Wall Street Journal’s Smart Money magazine named Blue Ridge GA one of the five best places to buy vacation homes in the U.S. “Why is this town a choice retreat? No worries about over-development — 42% of Fannin County is owned by the National Forest Service. After hiking the Appalachian mountain trails, head to the 100-year-old downtown to furnish your new house at the antique stores and galleries.” The June 17, 2014 issue of their MarketWatch lists Blue Ridge as #4 of “10 Great Mountain Towns For Retirees.” Their comment: “If you like the outdoors, chances are you have dreamed about retiring to a town in the mountains. You might love to ski, hike, camp, fish, mountain bike, or just plain admire the beautiful scenery.” Down in the old real estate sweatshop, we never had those calls from New York before that 2002 article was published.

Our county is still 42% national forest. Lake Blue Ridge is the crown jewel of the mountain lakes, with over 100 miles of shoreline, about 80 miles of it is national forest. There’s a US Forest Service campground on the lake, near the Morganton Point swimming area. Our area includes two different mountain chains, the Cohuttas (a continuation of the Unakas, which form the western ridges of the Smokies) and the Blue Ridge Mountains (a continuation of the southern Appalachians). They have different rocks. The Unakas are older and more rugged; the Blue Ridges decline into the Atlanta foothills.

There are two major wilderness areas, the Cohutta/Big Frog and the Rich Mountain Wilderness, along with a number of great Wildlife Management Areas. The Appalachian Trail begins in Fannin County at Springer Mountain, and the wonderful Three Forks area is some twenty miles north.

By some estimates, the Blue Ridge region has the greatest mixture of temperate climate plants in the world, except for eastern temperate Asia, because it comprises the northernmost range of many southern species and the southernmost range of many northern species. It’s a botanical paradise, in other words.

Chattanooga is just as close as Atlanta, and it offers a somewhat different mix of shopping and dining experiences. In the old days, it was much easier to get to Chattanooga than Atlanta, and many of the older residents orient to Chattanooga. Even ten years ago, were still some sales territories that extended out of Chattanooga into our area, even though it’s easier now to get here from Atlanta.

Leftover Real Estate Advice: Fannin vs. Gilmer vs. Union

Fannin County (Blue Ridge) has become the preferred destination for second home buyers in our area. Because of the river, the lake, and the Aska Adventure Area, it probably has the best mix of outdoor recreational opportunities in our area. The average cabin buyer is between the ages of 35 and 55. Taken as a whole, Fannin probably has the best architectural conformity of the three counties, and the highest average property values. It also has arguable a greater chance of property appreciation, if you view your cabin as an investment. Fightingtown Creek is renowned for trout, and many people consider the Toccoa River tailrace the best trout stream in Georgia. Blue Ridge also has a flourishing downtown, with antique shops, restaurants, and specialty stores. The prevalent style is the log cabin with a tongue and groove interior, all wood, no carpets, no sheet rock.

Gilmer County (Ellijay) has the advantage of being fifteen or twenty minutes closer to Atlanta, and boasts more large gated communities than Fannin County. Gilmer has three rivers, and river property in Gilmer is typically priced somewhat lower than in the same type of river property in Fannin. In general, comparable cabin property in Gilmer is a bit cheaper than in Fannin. Gilmer includes parts of the Rich Mountain and Cohutta Wilderness areas. Many local real estate agents consider the downside of Gilmer County to be its numerous chicken farms (they smell bad) and dubious conformity in some Gilmer developments. The prevalent style is a mix of both cabin properties and traditional homes.

Union County (Blairsville) is twenty minutes further from Atlanta than Fannin County, placing it beyond what many second home buyers consider the limit for a weekend resort. Perhaps for this reason, Union is more of a retirement community. One major advantage to Union is that property on Lake Nottely is currently very reasonable compared to property on Lake Blue Ridge. Blairsville is definitely more progressive than Fannin County. While Blairsville’s downtown can’t compare to Blue Ridge’s, there’s no doubt that there’s been much more spending on parks, recreation facilities, and community centers. Some consider Blairsville is a bit “sleepy” compared to Blue Ridge, reflecting the fact that it is more of a classic retirement community. The prevalent style is a mix of traditional and cabin features that is appealing to many retirees.

If you’re looking for real estate, bear in mind that our MLS classifies properties on the basis of which post office serves the address. It has to, there’s no other way. So when a listing says “Morganton,” for instance, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in Morganton. It might be twenty miles from town, so long as the Morganton post office serves it.

The portion of Tennessee that borders Fannin County is a growing area for second home buyers. While it is at least twenty or thirty minutes further from Atlanta, cabin and land prices in Tennessee are currently a bargain compared to comparable property in Fannin. The problem is that you’re probably going to have to travel back to Blue Ridge to buy groceries, although there is an IGA in McCaysville. The town of Copperhill has undergone a renaissance in the past few years, and it is now home to some interesting shops, along with several restaurants. At this time, Tennessee still has no state income tax, and it may be a good choice for retirees who have no need to commute to and from Atlanta. Aside from the greater distance from Atlanta, the major downside of this part of Tennessee is that to reach most properties in this area, it is necessary to pass by the old copper plant, a major eyesore. Some concerns remain about the operations at the old chemical plant, the Tennessee Copper Company, and buyers need to educate themselves about this issue. Additionally, much of the land in this area is sold without the mineral rights. It is fair to say that distressed property is more of a concern in this area than in others. Cleanup efforts have allowed the Ocoee River north of the plant, which was dead to aquatic life for 100 years, to begin to make a real recovery. Rafting tours through the Ocoee Gorge – the site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater events – are a very popular activity.

The portion of North Carolina that borders Fannin County may be a viable option for buyers who do not mind being further from Atlanta. In general, resort property in North Carolina is higher than comparable property in Georgia, but there are exceptions to this rule in our area. Average annual rainfall is higher in eastern North Carolina than in our area. Appalachia Lake is a designated wilderness lake, and is not drawn down for flood control during the winter. This area may be a good choice for artists and others who want to be close to the John C. Campbell Folk School and a bit closer to Asheville.