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Wednesday, 13 May 2015 14:52

In WNC, economic development is a different game

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op frHe was tall, maybe 6 feet 8 inches or taller, and was standing at an intersection studying a map. My wife, Lori, and I had just dumped out from a favorite trail at Bent Creek in Asheville onto the well-used Forest Service Road 491, jogging along as we enjoyed the warm early spring afternoon.

We gave him some directions, and he asked if he could just follow along for a while so as not to get lost. His strong French accent made it obvious he wasn’t a local.

As we picked our way along the trail Lori struck up a conversation. He was here on business at the Michelin plant in the Upstate. He liked to bike and run, and friends from work had recommended he try Asheville’s Bent Creek if he wanted some good hill running in a beautiful spot. He planned to stay the night at a hotel, perhaps hit a brewery or restaurant.

We parted in just a few minutes as we gave him what we thought were good directions. A half hour later after getting to our car and starting the drive out, we saw him still running, obviously headed to a different parking area than the one we had sent him to. Oh well.

I thought about the guy as I heard the news about how economic development officials in North Carolina are bemoaning another big one that got away. Volvo announced Monday that it is building a plant near Charleston that will employ about 2,000. Earlier this year, Mercedes also announced plans to build a plant in the same area, this one going to North Charleston.

With the two announcements, South Carolina is solidifying its position as the go-to state for upscale car manufacturers. BMW located in the upstate of South Carolina in the 1990s and transformed the Greenville-Spartanburg area, which was already home to a Michelin Tire plant.

North Carolina and Georgia wanted the Volvo plant, and it’s easy to see why. The Greenville-Spartanburg area has undergone a radical transformation over the last decade as other suppliers and manufacturers flocked around the BMW plant, creating thousands of jobs. There’s little doubt the same thing will happen in the Charleston area.

As a business owner, I’m generally opposed to the massive tax breaks given by local and state officials as they try to outbid one another for these huge plants. I wonder how many jobs the medium and small businesses already in existence would create if given similar incentives.

The flip side to dwelling on what North Carolina may have lost in not landing these plants, though, is what made me think of that trail runner from France. We have natural features the Upstate and Charleston can never replicate. As long as the tourism marketing professionals in our mountain counties continue to do their job well, we indeed do benefit from the prosperity that rains down on South Carolina, Atlanta and even Charlotte.

I’ve written before about the engineer I met from the Boeing plant that is also near Charleston. Twice in less than a year I’ve randomly ran into this guy, the first time at a brewery in Asheville and the second time — months later — at brewery in Waynesville. He and his wife come here to get away, to hike and eat and tour breweries. His home base is a Waynseville bed and breakfast.

Do we live in the most desirable place to reside or visit in the U.S.? It seems that more and more lately that’s what I keep hearing from locals and visitors, especially young visitors. This place has always held a draw for tourists, but right now the beer-food-outdoors-art-music- scene is exploding all at once, all mixing together with a go-local mentality that is making Asheville and all points west to the Smokies something quite unique. There’s an allure that is feeding off itself, one that is as strong as it’s ever been in the 23 years I’ve called this place home.

In the best of all possible worlds, Western North Carolina will land a few clean manufacturers to keep a good mix of different kinds of jobs. But put a big new plant four or five hours away — or closer, like the Upstate, as the French trail runner proved — and we still reap big benefits. If people are that close and have good-paying jobs, they’re gonna come to the mountains. We just have to show them a good time. 

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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