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Wednesday, 19 November 2014 15:03

Economic summit participants point to regional approach as key to success

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fr summitThe key to economic and community development in Western North Carolina is for leaders of the public, private and nonprofit sectors to reach beyond town limits and county lines to embrace a more regional approach, steeped in a spirit of cooperation and partnership.

That was the message heard again and again Wednesday, Nov. 12, from speakers and participants at LEAD:WNC, a one-day summit convened by WCU to discuss solutions leading to sustainable economic and community development.

Approximately 275 business leaders, chamber of commerce representatives, elected and appointed officials, educators, economists and entrepreneurs gathered in the Liston B. Ramsey Regional Activity Center for a day of discussion centered on six sectors of the region’s economy – education, tourism, health care, innovation and technology, the creative arts and natural products.

The summit, the first of what is intended to become a yearly event, fulfills a pledge made by WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher in his March 2012 installation address when he called for an annual conference of regional leaders and thinkers to work collaboratively on solving regional issues.

 “We live in a time in which regions have become the fundamental geographies that define economic competitiveness, and the degree of our future economic success will be determined by the degree to which we unite as a region within this new world order,” Belcher said in remarks kicking off the LEAD:WNC summit.

“This was, of course, not always so. There was a time when towns, counties and cities were largely self-reliant, taking care of their own needs and competing with other towns, counties and cities for businesses, industries, tourists, population growth and so forth,” he said.

The understandable tendency to define economic and community development efforts by municipal and political boundaries has been even more prevalent in the mountain region, Belcher said.

But the onset of four-lane highways, the Internet, cell phones, and round-the-clock news and entertainment programming has dramatically altered the landscape, creating a global economy and ushering in “an era of hyper-connectivity across wide ranges of geography,” he said.

Belcher pointed to three major research universities partnering to establish North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park and the collaboration between historic rivals, the South Carolina cities Greenville and Spartanburg, as examples where traditional borders and boundaries have been broken down for a more regional approach.

“Regions have become the geographic locus of self-reliance. Regions compete with regions to attract business, industry, investment, tourism, talent and the creative class. If we in Western North Carolina are going to be successful within this context, we must figure out how to partner with one another across our historic boundaries,” he said. “I for one cannot wait to see what you and we together will come up with to strengthen the economic health and vitality of Western North Carolina.”

Summit speakers included N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville, who told the crowd that some situations call for cooperation not just within regions, but between regions.

“When we look at North Carolina, we are seeing the east and west as separate from the middle of the state,” Apodaca said. “We are seeing that the east and west parts of North Carolina need to join together in order to have any power in the state.”

Eastern North Carolina and the WNC region do face similar issues, he said, including a more rural environment, less transportation and other infrastructure, and higher levels of poverty and unemployment.

Michael Walden, the William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University, delivered the summit keynote address, discussing the state’s most pressing economic challenges and opportunities.

North Carolina has some advantages that leave the state well-positioned to see continued economic growth in the future, Walden said. Those advantages include competitive labor costs; beautiful natural amenities as a state in the “sunny South”; numerous centers of technology, science, research and innovation; and strong in-migration.

“The future is always scary. The future is always uncertain. The future has risks,” he said. “But the future also has opportunities. Embrace the future. Anticipate change and try as best as you can to prepare for change. Monitor trends. And remember that we continue to be the most dynamic and adaptable economy in the world.”

For more information about LEAD:WNC, visit the website www.leadwnc.wcu.edu.

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