“If you ever question the economy of a hurricane, look at that parking lot.”
So said Chip Pulliam as the Surry Sunrise Rotary president gaveled in his club’s meeting Wednesday morning at the Holiday Inn Express. Every spot in the inn’s parking lot was filled as cars overflowed onto the grassy edges.
Pulliam said the hotel’s parking lot is usually about half full when he gets there for meetings at 7 a.m. but on Wednesday there wasn’t a spot to be found.
“Gosh, you sure are busy,” Pulliam said to the hotel staff who were stocking the hotel’s breakfast buffet. The staff informed him they were completely booked with waiting lists through the weekend.
“It’s like early Mayberry Days,” said Lenise Lynch, general manager of Hampton Inn. “We’ve sold out 125 rooms for three nights: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.”
To put it in perspective, Lynch said that on a normal weeknight at this time of year, they’d rent about 75 rooms. But this week, all 125 rooms have been occupied.
Nate Dewitt was occupying one of Lynch’s 125 rooms. He evacuated Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, and checked in at the Hampton Inn on Wednesday evening.
Dewitt said he relocated to Murrells Inlet from Maine 22 years ago, and this is the second time he has been forced out by a storm. The first was Floyd in 1998 when he went to Charlotte.
“This time I looked at a map,” said Dewitt, “and it looked like it was going to glance up here, and then go south. I’ve got a buddy who travels a lot to West Virginia, and this is his halfway point, so I decided to try it.”
Dewitt was enjoying the terrain, saying he didn’t get inland too much, and he was admiring the mountains.
Lynch was not surprised that so many people like Dewitt chose Mount Airy as a soft place to land.
“We have been ranked as ‘the friendliest city in the country’,” she said. “We’ve gotten a lot of publicity for being an awesome city, and there’s more stuff to do, more restaurants than in the smaller towns like Dobson.”
In 1994, Mount Airy earned All-America City honors.
Down the street at the Quality Inn, general manager Nick Patel said they initially got a bump in business from hurricane evacuees, but it looked like it would be more than offset by the cancellations that have come in.
“We’re going to lose more than we gained,” he said.
“We always have a lot of visitors in September,” said Jessica Icenhour Roberts, executive director of Mount Airy Tourism Development Authority.
Roberts has spent the last several days with visitors center staff keeping updated with who has rooms throughout the county and finding appropriate places for evacuees. She said there have been a lot of large, inter-generational families traveling together and a lot of families with pets — situations that have presented unusual challenges.
In addition to residents evacuating the coast, tourists from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other points north who were forced to cut their vacation short because of Florence have chosen to come here to get in a few extra days before returning home.
According to Roberts, the Cabins at White Sulphur Springs offered a discount to evacuees and filled all their cabins. Some of the larger hotels have relaxed their rules regarding pets, so that everyone with a pet has found a place to stay.
Stepping out from the Visitor’s Center to Barneys Cafe next door, Roberts said it was much more crowded than usual.
“They’re coming downtown,” she said, “and a lot of them will be back.”
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.