Spirit of Rowan: Many agree: High Rock Lake is full of potential

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Ten years ago, Mikey Wetzel had obtained a fair portion of the American dream.

He graduated from California Polytechnic State University with a master’s degree in computer science. From there, he settled in Seattle, started a family and worked as a technical director for Microsoft Game Studios.

But something was missing. Namely, Wetzel had yet to achieve a lifelong dream of lakefront living.

Wetzel said that even with a lucrative career in the gaming industry that allowed him to work from any location, his dream appeared financially unobtainable.

Then research led him to High Rock Lake. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since moving to High Rock Lake’s shore, Wetzel has left his job with Microsoft to focus full time on entrepreneurship. He opened Go Burrito in downtown Salisbury in 2013. Now, the restaurant has 35 employees and averages $1.7 million in annual sales.

But that’s not all.

Go Burrito is now offering franchise opportunities, with locations in Tennessee and Florida in the works.

Wetzel said his story of entrepreneurism and economic impact on Rowan County could be one of many. The critical factor, he said, is leveraging High Rock Lake as the asset it is.

“High Rock Lake is the second-largest lake in North Carolina,” Wetzel said. “Why is it not a huge economic driver for this area? … There are millions of people like me that if they knew (about the lake), they would move here in a heartbeat.”

Wetzel’s desire to build awareness of the lake is one felt by county officials and residents alike — so much so that the chairman of the county commissioners, Greg Edds, formed a group to discuss leveraging the natural resource in late 2017.

“How do we begin to create a structure and a framework for developing that asset into something that we can be proud of and that helps meet all of our other economic and quality-of-life objectives?” Edds asked following a December meeting of the group.

For members of the group, the first step is marketing three of the lakes key assets:

• Real estate

Wetzel said to the average Rowan County resident, High Rock Lake land may seem pretty steep, averaging about $100,000 to $200,000 per acre.

“That’s an inside viewpoint,” he said. “To the rest of the country, land costs money.”

How much money depends on the location, he said, but lakefront property on High Rock is cheaper than non-lakefront property in other parts of the nation.

Wetzel said the comparatively small price tag could draw many to the lake. The benefit, he said, is when they begin to build their homes.

“(W)hen somebody comes in and they build an upscale house, that’s money they’re injecting into local economy right now.”

• Business potential

While many give areas around Rowan County negative marks for underserved markets and missing businesses, Wetzel said he sees nothing but untapped potential.

On High Rock in particular, spaces to purchase, rent or repair boats are few and far between.

“Would you ever buy a car without test driving it?” he asked. “You’re not going to buy a boat without test driving it. Not a real boat.”

Boat dealerships have the potential to bring huge economic benefit to the county, Wetzel said. Certain brands of wakeboard boats, for example, retail for over $100,000 apiece.

“There’s a lot of economic potential there,” said Wetzel. “Plus, if you had more people coming to the lake and it had more of an ecosystem, I think you’d have the market for several more restaurants, like Lake Norman.”

• Recreation

Currently, the county and the owners of High Rock’s dam, Cube Hydro, are working to select the location of a future public access area on Rowan County’s side of the lake.

The construction is part of a relicensing settlement between former dam owner, Alcoa, and stakeholders, allowing operation of the dams to continue only if certain conditions are met.

One condition was that Alcoa fund a public access point for Rowan County, and it’s an obligation Cube Hydro has inherited.

“”They want to be good corporate citizens in this region,” said Rowan Chamber of Commerce President Elaine Spalding. “They’ve gotten involved in the community, and I think they are going to be a really good partner for the county going forward.”

Wetzel said officials are working with Cube Hydro to select an area for the lake access.

Others, like Spalding and Larry Jones and Joyce Caron-Mercier of the High Rock Lake Association, point to recreational activities already available.

Spalding said lake amenities include Eagle Point, a nature preserve and hiking trail along the water’s edge. The Chamber of Commerce also hosts its annual Dragon Boat Festival on the lake, which attracts nearly 25 teams and 3,500 spectators.

Jones and Caron-Mercier said the lake offers a great place to fish. In summer months, there are fishing tournaments nearly every weekend, said Jones, and Bass Master Classic tournaments have been hosted at the lake three times.

“That’s economic development for the county, ongoing,” said Caron-Mercier.

Spreading the word

With the location of a public access point still in limbo, the first course of action for Edds’ High Rock Lake committee is spreading the word.

“High Rock Lake, first, it needs to exist. People need to know about it,” said Wetzel. “We need to tell the story.”

Jones, president of the High Rock Lake Association, agreed.

“It’s turned into a beautiful place to be, and it’s kind of a well-kept secret,” Jones said. “What it was has nothing to do with what it is now or what it’s going to be in the future.”