Western Carolina University

Western Carolina University

Moderated by UNC-TV’s Director of Production, Shannon Vickery, this event features an interactive dialogue among expert panelists, representing local leadership in education, policy and industry, and viewers like you. Participating experts, include: Western Carolina University Chancellor Dr. John Bardo; Dr. Laura Leatherwood, Executive Director of Continuing and Adult Education at Haywood Community College; President & CEO of AdvantageWest Economic Development Group, Scott Hamilton; Dr. Ronald Johnson, Dean of the College of Business at Western Carolina University; and Ray Rose, Vice President of Hotel, Food and Beverage Engineering at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Topics for discussion include tourism, casino expansion, advanced manufacturing and craft industries.

Meeting Summary

On a Wednesday evening in the quiet town of Cullowhee in western North Carolina, UNC-TV brought together a panel of experts and community members to discuss rural economic development as it pertains to the western reaches of the state. After seeing so many textile plants leave the area and tourism numbers drop off, the communities in western North Carolina are now struggling to compete in a growing global community. Most agree that the area should try to reinvent itself while also looking at the unique offerings of the region. Eager to find something to boost the ecnomony, towns like Cherokee are investing in tourism and the craft industry. Manufacturing also shows promise for the region, especially in towns like Murphy that are investing in training a skilled workforce.

The discussion began by talking generally about the state of the economy in western North Carolina. Scott Hamilton works on economic development in the area every day, particularly with companies who are considering locating in NC. Hamilton emphasizes the need for a skilled workforce. According the the companies he works with, finding the people they need to produce the products they manufacture is the biggest concern when locating to a new area. One way to encourage companies to locate in western NC is promote the understanding that the eudction system is in place to continue to educate the community. John Bardo agreed, suggesting that as we move into the 21st century, higher education must be the center of everything, not just something that people go off and do as a sepearate part of life. According to Bardo, this idea of "life-long education" means that there is no difference between education and "the real world."

Dr. Johnson pointed out that western NC is facing the same challenges as the rest of the state: retail sales are down, tourism is down, manufacturing is down. He suggests that technology be used to make the leap into the global economy and bring in new industries, and that the "information highway infrastructure" can replace a roadway network that has not been developed well in the more rural areas of the region.

A question from a viewer via the internet directed the conversation toward the craft and tourism industry. Kelly asks "What kind of impact has the recent recession had on both the craft industry and the tourism industry in NC?," to which Hamilton responded that there are bright spots, sectors of the craft community who are doing well, but they have been affected like all other industries. On a positive note, he suggested that there are signs that the industry is moving upward, such as the leaf season bringing more people to the area, and fall festivals and fairs that have had a good turn out. Of the tourism seen this year, Hamilton says it's been "not great, could be better, but it could be worse."

An audience question then brought up the need for improved transportation between communities in western North Carolina so that tourists can be brought between tourist destinations. Bardo brought up a project that is working with the town of Dillsboro because the Great Smokey Mountain train has been moved and no longer brings tourists to the small town. The project is helping the town reconceptualize their base and use assets within the community that don't require outside investment, specifically organizing the community so that it "can make good judgements about what they want their future to be."

Agri-business, Hamilton then pointed out, is also one of Advantage West's core ventures for job creation along with advanced manufacturing, green economy, and entrepreneurship. He offered the example of Blue Ridge Food Ventures, a commerical kitchen incubator open to people across the region that allows them to value-add their homegrown produce and prepare it for market in a certified kitchen. This venture supports a huge component of the economy and works on how to get local produce out into the local markets.

Dr. Johnson agrees with this two-part model, which he referred to "adaptive advantage," in which a community looks at what it currently has to offer and makes the most of those assets. The biotechnology sector has opportunities when it comes to homeopathic and natural medicines, and in western NC this field is based on a history of Native American history, as well as other historical cultures, that have used natural medicines for generations.

An audience poll went on to reveal some general community impressions of the work being done to stimulate the economy of western NC and the general outlook of the region:

Do you believe that your children or grandchildren will be able to make a living in this region?
Yes - 61%
No - 39%

Is enough being done to lure new business to the area?
Yes - 16%
No - 84%

Do you actively support local businesses?
Yes always - 32%
Sometimes - 65%
No - 3%

Bardo admitted that he was not surprised by the results, both the positive outlook and the feeling that enough is not being done to lure new business. One of the unique things about this region, he said, is that it's closer to other states than it is to the central parts of the state. Therefore, when it comes to developing business, it takes a different approach than in the Piedmont. He posited the question "is enough being done?" and answered it by saying that it's not talked about as much in this area. Hamilton also expected those answers. The terrible ecnomic crisis is definitely reflected in the answers to the recruitment question. "Everyone knows people who have been laid off," he said, "but opportunities are still there," he insisted. He admitted however, that they can always be doing more to bring jobs to the area.

A question from the audience, then directed the discussion back to local businesses. Because crafts are more of a tourist industry than a year-round business, the audience member asks how much the businesses planned are going to be a permanent, year-round consumer-based industries. In response, Hamilton said he believes that crafts are not a tourist-based industry, citing Handmade in America's handmade house. He emphasized tat niches like furniture are still crafting but can be a year-round business. Bardo also encouraged a new focus on indifgenous business. He argued that a lot of time is spent focusing on recruiting, but said it's "almost a fool's game," as businesses move all the time. Instead, western NC should notice that local high-tech businesses, in addition to crafts and mom-and-pop businesses, are all growing and the internet is helping to develop them.

With the large Native American population in western NC, Rose suggested that using the tribal assets can prove beneficial to local entrepreneurs. Community development financial institutions, like the one within the Cherokee tribe, targets entrepreneurs both strarting and expanding businesses that might not fit the typical model. These institutions help them develop their business plan, offer loans and post-loan technical assistance. So far, the Cherokee have invested $6.2 million in loans and is responsible for the creation of about 350 jobs. "People looking to start businesses," Rose added, "should know there are a lot of resources, not just bank loans."

Another audience poll revealed a split opinion on what would most improve the economy in western NC.

What do you think would do the most to improve the economy in the region?
More educational opportunities and training 18%
Improved infrastructure 23%
Increase in federal, state, or local incentives 28%
Better leadership to promote communities' assets 32%

In response, Dr. Johnson admitted that he also believes the better leadership is the key factor because the communities in the mountains are still not well connected. Many communities still don't have a good grasp on their own demographics and tax bases. These areas need people to be better connected with their leaders in order to bring about positive change.

A WCU masters student, who is also the executive director of the Literacy Council of the Highlands, then brought up the fact that part of the successful economic recovery is funding sustainable noprofit organizations that support families and individuals. "How do plans for economic develop work with nonprofits?," she asked. According to Bardo, the funding sources for nonprofits tend to dry up during an economic downturn. Even tough nonprofits are hurting, he emphasized that they are still a benefit for the community. He agreed that creating viable nonprofit organizations could prove greatly beneficial for many communities.

All the panelists agreed that whether an organization is a local business or a nonprofit, resources such as the Small Business Technology Development Center, work with existing for-profits, as well as nonprofit entities, to build infrastructure, plan business models, and position themselves to be more viable. In addition to small business centers, community colleges also offer free services, including counciling and business support for both businesses and nonprofits.

An audience question from a broadcast student and member of the eastern band of Cherokee, asked what steps are being taken to help the mountain comunities move forward specifically. Bardo suggested that there is not just one answer because every mountain community is in a different position. What will work in one community will not necessarily work in another. He emphasized, however, that all of these initiatives are trying to help each community understand where they are, what resources they have, and where their potential is for growth.

Rose looked at how the cherokee, unlike many areas of the state, are experiencing a large expansion initiative, which is helping to stimulate the local ecnomuy. For one thing, these projects, he said, employ over 800 construction workers each day. He suggested that western NC has to overcome some assumptions about the region -- namely, that it doesn't fit models and doesn't have everything that a business needs. He believes that once the region clearly understands what it has to offer, it can do a better job of letting businesses and other regions know about those assets. He also agreed, harkening back to a point made earlier, that infrastructure is need to better connect mountain communities to each other and to other larger cities in the state. He also added, "We need some visionaries and an involved citzenry, which is difficult with the history of these communities."

A final poll of the audience revealed diverse community impressions of what the area's most promising industry is.

What industry shows the most economic promise?
Agriculture 15%
Biotechnology 19%
Manufacturing 15%
Construction and military contracts 5%
Medical 21%
Tourism 28%

Hamilton said he believes in economic diversity for western NC. "I truly think that our economy is diverse enough that there are opporuntinies across the board," he said.

Another audience question brought up the information infrastructure in the area and if posited whether rural western nc has adequate access to the internet, and how that can be improved. Bardo admits that the region is struggling to connect the last corners of the area. However, he argued that compared to many rural areas of NC, western NC is moving ahead with both private and public investment. Hamilton agreed that the region is well positioned, like the Research Triangle Park is well-positioned. Powerful broadband can play a major role in a number of industries from weather to high tech industries and data centers. Hamilton said that the infrastructure is there, but the perception is not, and regardless, "we still have more fiber to stretch."

Another audience question turned the discussion to aging and retirement in western NC. Many people want to retire in the region. With the baby boomers coming this way, the question of what is being done to get ready for this influx, in terms of extended care, insurance, highways, medical facilities, is put on the table.

Dr. Johnson suggested that the fatest growing component is in financial services. He believes there is a growing demand for trust offices as retirees need someone who understands law, regulations, and family dynamics, who can deal with people who have family busiensses and help them figure out who gets what and future planning for the growth of their businesses. Bardo suggested that the whole issue around aging is also an indsutrial sector, not just services. The area needs improved healthcare facilities, and WCU is building a major health facility on campus and becoming heavily involved in adapative and assitive device development and other advanced manufacturing that relates to aging. Hamilton also brought up the fact that the retirees moving to western NC are younger, usually in the range of 40-55 years-old. Because of this, they are looking for things to do with their free time, so offering them opportunities to be mentors to entrepreneurs, offering their knowledge to new business people, can also help the community.

Overall, the panelists and community members agree that the future is not bleak for wester North Carolina. With many indigenous businesses, diversity in the industrial base, and an educational system in place to train a skilled workforce, the region is well positioned to be competitive in a global economy. Infrastructure improvements and leaders who can connect mountain communities to each other and to the rest of the state are two key factors than can boost the region's economic development into the 21st century.