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Sally Ashworth: Her hospitality contributes to the local economy


By Katie Piccirillo Sherman. Like many people—visitors and residents alike—Sally Ashworth’s first glimpse of Lake Norman was on the I-77 causeway  just north of town.

“My husband—Chris and I—were married in 1988,” Ashworth says. “Shortly thereafter, Chris was transferred to work at his company’s main hub in Charlotte. As we were driving into the city, we caught the most beautiful sunset crossing I77. The lake mesmerized us. At that moment, we thought this would be an ideal place to live, work and play,” says Ashworth, executive director of Visit Lake Norman.

The Ashworths recently moved into The Courtyards at Jetton, the Epcon development on the Jetton Road extension. Sally has been with the local convention and visitors bureau nearly 14 years.

She manages a staff of four full-time employees and 21 volunteer ambassadors who staff the visitors center on West Catawba Avenue.

She also oversees a budget of  $700,000, and shepherds along annual events such as bass tournaments that put “heads in beds” at the 19 hotels within the Lake Norman footprint.

The lake is still the region’s main attraction so landing more  fishing tournaments is a natural for VLN.

She’s looking forward to next year when, for the first time in years, a public swimming beach will open at Ramsey Creek.

“This facility is long overdue,” Ashworth says. “For years, visitors have asked where they can swim. Reluctantly, we had to send them out of the county to Lake Norman State Park. That’s the only current public swimming access we have on the lake. We are very excited for this development and local businesses share in that excitement.”

Ashworth’s team relies on electronic media and visitors’ guides to coax out-of-town visitors to attractions like Birkdale Village, the Carolina Raptor Center, Joe Gibbs Racing.

Sports is a growth industry in the world of hospitality and accommodations.

“This is a market, specifically with amateur athletics, that we’ve found to be resistant to recession,” Ashworth says.

“In July, we hosted the largest Junior State Tennis Championship. We had 670 players and 92 teams. Because this is a two-year bid, our local businesses will benefit from this tournament again next year,” Ashworth says.

The signature VisitLakeNorman.org soccer event used fields throughout VLN’s footprint. There were 138 registered soccer teams from three states. “Eight hotels were utilized and benefited from the event,” Ashworth says.

In FY 2014, VLN-related events brought 91,000 attendees, who spent $22.6 million at local businesses.

Regarding the toll lanes, Ashworth says VLN “will remain vigilant, however the board will not take a position on them.”

The winding down of Michael Waltrip Raceworld is troubling. The race shop and tourist attraction near the Post Office at Chartwell and Liverpool  helps fill area restaurants and hotels. It was one more offering to build a tourist itinerary in Cornelius.

Waltrip Raceworld has been one of Lake Norman’s “signature tourism assets,” Ashworth says.

Their meeting space alone will be a “huge void,” she says.

Elected officials say Ashworth has done a good job.

“Sally has led VLN for 14 years through many economic ups and downs, including not having public swimming in a lakefront community. The MWR asset will not go unfilled, and we know and remain confident that Sally will help make that happen,” said Woody Washam, mayor pro tem of Cornelius and a former chairman of Visit Lake Norman.