Tall order

Western North Carolina boosters say the region’s quality of life will
help it achieve its economic-development goals.

It’s not unusual for economic developers to be boosters for their region’s biggest assets. In western North Carolina, they tout what literally are the state’s largest — its mountains. Steep slopes provide opportunities for leisure and business, according to a panel of leaders participating in a round-table discussion sponsored by AdvantageWest Economic Development Group. They were Dale Carroll, president and CEO of AdvantageWest; Tommy Jenkins, a broker at Nikwasi Real Estate Group in Franklin and a former state senator and representative; Connie Haire, Southwestern Community College vice president in charge of institutional development and its Macon campus; Sam Neill, a Hendersonville lawyer who is chairman of the Western North Carolina Film Commission; and Gene Ellison, an Asheville lawyer and former board member of Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. The round table, moderated by Arthur O. Murray, Business North Carolina managing editor for special projects, was held at the AdvantageWest office in Fletcher. Following is a transcript, edited for brevity and clarity.

What are the region's economic strengths?

Carroll: Travel and tourism will continue to be strong, and we have a growing film and media-arts industry. Entrepreneurship has become a key objective. Advanced manufacturing continues to grow. These, along with an emphasis on working with the agribusiness community, are the areas we see growing.

Ellison: The economy is going to continue to grow and diversify because the universities have prepared for the future. One day, we’ll be like Research Triangle Park. That’s what will attract young people back here. That’s the key. How do we bring the best and the brightest back to western North Carolina instead of piling them up in Charlotte and Raleigh?

How do you do that?

Haire: I was just in Raleigh, and the traffic was too much. The quality of life here is going to attract some of these young folks if they can make an affordable wage, given the housing boom. The other piece we have to be mindful of is that we are good stewards of this land.

Neill: The common theme is the quality of life in the mountains. Outside magazine rated Asheville the top place in the United States to live. The book The Geography of Bliss identified the elements and communities that made people happy. There was only one place in the United States that was listed, and that was Asheville.

Jenkins: One of the challenges we’ve had is that the creative class is based in our urban area, Asheville. How do we spread that across the whole region?

Can it be dispersed?

Neill: We have the highest-speed Internet line of any place of our size in the U.S. We put the infrastructure in place. We have the environment where the young creative class wants to live. We looked at Austin, Texas, and put into place programs that were successful there. Our economy is on the threshold of taking advantage of that.

Jenkins: Some things we have going for us are broadband connectivity across our region and our entrepreneurial programs. We’ve got our certified entrepreneurial communities, a multi-stage program that helps communities develop programs for training and financing entrepreneurs and teaching them how to run a business. We’re beginning to crack the nut on how to spread that throughout the region.

Neill: We’re not competing as we did in the past with other local areas. We’re competing to have people come here from throughout the United States. We’ve been successful, and we’re happy about it.

What problems does the region need to address?

Ellison: When I was on the [Asheville] City Council in the early ’90s, the issue of infrastructure was major. We spent $1 million to send people underground to take pictures, and we saw the problems that exist. Those problems have not been resolved. We continue to build major hotels, major businesses, that weigh on that infrastructure. We can’t keep talking about fixing Interstate 26. Someone has to bite the bullet and take a leadership position on water, on roads and underground to address our sewer issues.

Jenkins: That’s every community in western North Carolina. We’re building second homes, retirement-living communities. A lot are dependent on drilled wells and septic tanks, and that’s going to reach a tipping point.

Haire: We’re facing that in Jackson County. The city water and sewer authority had a moratorium for the last six months, and you could not get a tap on. Things just came to a screeching halt. The building community and construction community were really frustrated. As for traffic, it’s the same thing with N.C. 107 going to Western Carolina University. It turns into a parking lot some times of the day. We’re dealing with a loop around town that should have been dealt with 25 years ago.

Ellison: Water fights have begun. We need to be looking at a 2020 regional plan. Nobody uses the French Broad River water, some of the best drinking water in the state. We won’t touch it because we don’t yet need it. But we need to take advantage of our resources. We need to be looking at a 2020 or 2030 plan for the region that incorporates addressing infrastructure.

Certainly other regions also have traffic and water issues.

Jenkins: One thing they don’t have, though, is the slope situation. People started in the valleys, and they’ve come up on the mountains, and they just keep coming on up. I don’t know where slope regulation is going. But I do know that it has started a good discussion. The stakeholders — builders, developers, the environmental community, local-government leaders — are truly beginning a fruitful discussion.

Should the state step in?

Jenkins: The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina started a mountain-landscaping initiative. It’s developing a toolbox of sample regulations so that local governments can pick and choose what they need to formulate development plans. Regardless of the outcome of slope legislation, just starting that conversation has been a benefit to our region.

Haire: Jackson County enacted some slope ordinances last year — and took a lot of heat — but they were needed. Creating this toolbox will help, because regulation will be different for Cherokee County than for Macon or Madison counties.

Ellison: One thing in doing regional planning, if you’ve got a 2020 or 2030 plan, is to look at it visually. You have equipment now where you’re able to look at what you want to see in 10 or 20 years. Do you want to be another California, with condos on every mountain? Or do you want to take care of these mountains and establish that some things are off limits?

Jenkins: The technology that you’re talking is being developed in Asheville.

Neill: Elumenati, a group here in Asheville, has created a fish-eye lens that can project on any curved surface with complete clarity. It is doing projections of what happens with our topography in a 50-year flood or a 100-year flood. What happens if development is done in this area? You’ll see it on the slope issues. It is creating models to help deal with these issues here that can be used to address them in the rest of the country.

With the influx of newcomers, how does the West maintain its identity?

Jenkins: Newcomers assimilate into the culture, and we buy into what they bring to us. It works both ways. I know of two cases in Franklin where people have moved small factories to the area simply because of the quality of life. They’re advanced-manufacturing businesses. They employ probably 20 to 50 people. That’s a perfect fit for the mountains.

Neill: At one time, many of our communities were driven solely by tourism, then it became second homes, then it became year-round homes. So what you find are many small communities in western North Carolina that are very cosmopolitan. I live in Hendersonville. We have an 80-piece orchestra that is in the black every year. We’ve had a Picasso exhibit. We’ve had a Salvador Dali exhibit. We’ve had it because of the full-time retirees that have moved to our community and are supporting it.

Haire: The early crafters in western North Carolina were our first entrepreneurs. That tradition is still alive and well, and we’ve had a number of organizations work on the preservation of it. Folks should know that it’s fine to come and live, but there is a strong heritage here, and that’s very important to these mountain people.

Jenkins: It’s also important to the people who move here. That’s part of what they consider a quality of life.

Neill: It really shows the underlying importance of tourism. More than just generating money, it’s generating a lot of our economic growth. When I’m doing stuff in creative industries, it affects tourism. A film like The Last of the Mohicans affected tourism for 15 or 20 years. The people coming here are the reason a lot of filmmakers or media-arts individuals want to come here.

Carroll: One of the big attractions is a strong presence of federal lands — national parks and state parks. It’s a key driver in tourism and filmmaking, but it also ties right in with entrepreneurship — the people with broadband connectivity who can move their businesses anywhere. Why not go to the place where they came to summer camp or where their families vacationed?

What about the work force?

Ellison: The community-college system here — Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Southwestern Community College and Blue Ridge Community College — compares with any in North Carolina. If you’re bringing in 500 jobs and need special training, those colleges have the ability and the willingness to get that done. That’s a great asset.

Neill: Young people know that they’re going to have to work maybe 10 jobs in their lifetimes. They want to improve themselves and train so they can go on to the next job, and they want the basic intellectual or information infrastructure to allow them to compete in the new economy. But they focus probably more so on quality of life. That’s where our competitive advantage really comes in. The creative class is coming here because of that.

Carroll: The Asheville Metro Center did a labor study looking at the greater Asheville area. We have a very balanced economy. We were just about equally divided between four areas of the economy. About 20,000 workers each are employed here in advanced manufacturing, health care, retail trade and hospitality and leisure.

Jenkins: We’ve touched on how tourism drives economic development and vice versa. One of the most fascinating stories we’ve had has been with Google. The person who put that project together to come to Lenoir was one of our guests at MerleFest. Something just clicked when Google was looking for a location. We’re having another weekend to entertain site-selection consultants, and we’re hoping lightning strikes twice.

Ellison: The communities in the AdvantageWest region have participated in developing a master plan identifying and protecting the heritage of western North Carolina. That’s what people come to enjoy. We have a cultural history that’s rich in many areas.

Haire: Are you aware of the performing-arts center that the Drake family is going to build just south of Franklin? I can see some real strengths for the region in having Drake Software and its owner, Phil Drake, here. He came back to Franklin after developing a successful tax-filing software. He has made huge investments in that community and just broke ground on a 1,500-seat performing-arts center.

Jenkins: What feeds this whole economy, when we go back to the basics, is entrepreneurial spirit. It’s infectious. When people move here, they catch it.

Neill: Part of the entrepreneurial spirit is, you take advantage of the hand you’re dealt. We’re closer to Charleston, S.C., to Atlanta, to Knoxville, Tenn., to Greenville and Spartanburg, S.C., than we are to the Triad or the Triangle. So we’re taking advantage of the relationships we have. It’s easy to tie into Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. With our Internet connectivity, we’ve got a situation where we’re really taking advantage of what in the past would have been viewed as a disadvantage.

Jenkins: Economic development doesn’t really rely on geographical boundaries anymore.

Neill: And when gas prices are high, it actually fuels our tourism, because we are located close to major metropolitan areas. People come to the mountains.

How can you help entrepreneurs?

Carroll: Working closely with a group called Tech 2020 that had a close working relationship with Oak Ridge, we were able to bring over something called the Tech Commercialization Center. It helps somebody with a promising business plan strengthen it by coming up with a top-notch execution strategy. We have complemented that with The Advantage Opportunity Fund — money that we raised through our board of directors and staff here to provide bridge financing.

How does it work?

Carroll: There are milestones in the execution plan. If you meet a milestone, you get the next block of financing. It’s something that was perfected in the Oak Ridge/Knoxville, Tenn., area. The center there has assisted more than 50 companies. We recently closed with our third entrepreneur.

Ellison: The critical thing probably is getting an honest assessment upfront. You get that here because you have the opportunity to make those presentations for people who are serious about it. You may not like what we say, but you’re probably better off knowing upfront it won’t work than spending $20 million to learn that it won’t work.

Neill: One of the advantages of people coming in from all over the United States is that we have a wealth of expertise from retired executives that can lend help to entrepreneurs. Most are more than happy to help someone who is in their field because they see themselves as they were years ago.

Jenkins: They not only can mentor these people but also can provide resources.

Neill: We’ve helped entrepreneurs get initial financing, we’ve helped them get their initial screening, and we’re helping them to help themselves.

Haire: That is a strong mountain tradition. It goes back to the old barn raisings. It’s part of this climate that we continue to assimilate people into.

AdvantageWest seems to embrace smaller manufacturers. How do they fit into your strategy?

Jenkins: We can’t produce gigantic sites in a lot of the area, so we’re almost forced to look at the more-advanced smaller manufacturers.

Neill: Smaller is going to have less environmental impact. It isn’t going to destroy the mountains or the clean water. You’re not going to have a major shutdown losing thousands of jobs. We focus on smaller and moderate-size industries because we’re in a different situation than many regions.

Ellison: If you catch a bunch of little fish together, they start looking like a big fish. And when times are bad, we have fewer losses, because you’ve got so many diverse industries. I don’t know the numbers, but I’d be willing to bet at least a nickel that the unemployment rate in western North Carolina is probably as low as it is across the state.

Neill: Many regions focus on large industry. That’s where all their resources are spent. But it makes a difference if you have someone who’s going to employ 20 or 50 people and they come in and the economic-development group is focused on them. That’s not something they get in other regions of the state or country.

Haire: We also help those that want to expand. Consolidated Metco in Bryson City is adding robotics. They’ve come to us at the community college, and we’re setting up training. It’s going to mean another 20 to 40 jobs. We support companies that already are here.

Carroll: There is fertile ground in the supply chain. While certainly it may be the large assembly operation that gets a lot of the fanfare and attention, the more steady economic impact comes from the company that is in a niche in the supply chain. That’s the company that can weather recessionary pressures.

Do you have an example?

Carroll: We were part of an initiative that has helped to attract three major boat-building companies to this region. The management team of one of the boat builders recently told me that the company needed supply-chain help with stainless-steel components and aluminum parts. We just hosted a supply-chain seminar with the N.C. State University Industrial Extension Service, Western Carolina industries and the N.C. Department of Commerce. We had to turn people away. We have now scheduled a second supply-chain seminar. It’s all about trying to grow their business. So we’re very interested in putting our actions behind what we say in going after the small to medium-size manufacturers.

What do you think of the notion of an inland port?

Carroll: I’m working with Western Carolina University on the feasibility study. We’ve had a fact-finding mission to the inland port at Front Royal, Va. Because of our proximity to major areas such as Atlanta, upstate South Carolina, Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tenn., as well as the Ohio Valley and the Mid-Atlantic region, there is some potential. But the study needs to be very objective. If the feasibility study says don’t do it or don’t do it at this time, then we want to be true to those findings. But if it says you have real potential, then we’re going to aggressively go after an inland port.