For upwardly mobile professionals who are looking for an outdoor lifestyle, scenic mountain beauty and the company of like-minded individuals, Jackson County has proven the perfect fit.
Just-released 2010 census data shows Jackson County emerging over the last decade as the fastest-growing county among the state’s 18 westernmost counties. The county grew from 33,273 people in 2000 to 40,271 last year, an increase of 21 percent.
It doesn’t take a demographer’s skills to pinpoint where that growth came from, not with the bottom falling out of Western North Carolina’s construction and real-estate sector: the anchor of the county’s economic base has been Western Carolina University. Supporting roles are played by numerous governmental institutions that serve the whole region but have their headquarters in Jackson — such as Southwestern Community College, the N.C. Center for Advancement of Teaching, Southwestern Development Commission, the N.C. Department of Transportation and Smoky Mountain Mental Health.
Who fueled the growth?
Teresa Killian Tate, 35, who works in WCU’s office of public relations, is one of the faces of this growing-ever-more-professional Jackson County. She was a police-beat reporter for the Spartanburg Herald Journal in South Carolina when the bug to move to WNC hit.
The Asheville native started coming to the far western counties to take advantage of the Nantahala River. Then she took up mountain biking and was soon riding the trails in Tsali Recreation Area.
“I started thinking, ‘Gosh, some people actually live here — how does that happen?’” Tate said.
Then she heard WCU Chancellor John Bardo’s message that he wanted the children of the mountains to have jobs in the mountains and be able to stay and work in this region. “I was so moved,” Tate said. “It inspired me to want to be a part of this community.”
Others, like Tate, were equally intentional in their selection of Jackson County. Or, to be more accurate, in their selection of WNC — more often than not, Jackson County simply has the jobs available that this career-minded, educated population seems to be searching for. Once here, however, the burgeoning downtown scene in Sylva has kept them entertained, and Asheville is just a hop, skip and a jump away for those needing a taste of big-city life.
Thirty-year-old Taylor Bennett, who lives in Cullowhee and owns a building company, Riverwood Custom Creation, is a 2003 WCU graduate who discovered he wanted to make his home in Jackson County.
The Greensboro native, who received a degree that had a concentration in outdoor leadership, helped a friend start a Dillsboro river company. He shifted to building, and eventually started his own company, which has found a comfortable Jackson County niche in areas such as building “green” and in energy retrofitting. Times have gotten tougher, but for now, Bennett is holding his own in the rough economic climate.
“This is somewhere I’d love to stay,” said Bennett, whose wife also attended WCU.
Bennett touted the growing contingent of “young professionals,” and an increasingly vibrant downtown scene in Sylva, as reasons he loves calling Jackson County home.
These days, Sylva boasts plenty of bars, but also trendy restaurants, and perks such as a bakery, brewery and farmers market.
“Our goal was to get back to the mountains, though not necessarily Jackson County,” said Rose Bauguess, 35, on her move here.
Bauguess is from Clay County, her husband, Greg, from Wilkes County. The couple has two children. She telecommutes for a Raleigh environmental consulting firm; he works at WCU as director of development.
Rose Bauguess has been impressed by the development of Sylva from what she remembers as a child — more “happening,” perhaps, than her hometown of Hayesville, but not exactly what most people would consider hip — to today’s modish downtown.
Another newcomer who helped propel Jackson to the region’s fastest growing county over the past decade is Elizabeth Gillespie, 50, who picked WNC as the place she wanted to live after spending time here seasonally, then ferreted out a job and new career to help enable that dream. Gillespie is highly educated. She brings extensive previous professional experience to the table, including nine years as the vice president and production manager for Granny Gear Productions, a sports marketing and events company. She proved the perfect fit, in turn, as a public communication specialist for the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, where kindergarten through high-school teachers from across the state take advantage of cross-disciplinary classes.
“I love being in a town that is this closely connected to a university,” said Gillespie.
A study in contrasts
Neighboring Macon County, which relied almost exclusively on home building and real estate to underpin its economy, by comparison saw growth slow drastically. Macon County grew from 29,964 people in 2000 to 33,922 last year, an increase of just more than 13 percent — half the growth rate posted in 2000 for the previous decade, when Jackson County’s neighbor was booming at a 26-percent rate.
“We had a lot of our eggs in one basket, and unfortunately, that was a basket that got dropped,” said Brian McClellan, a financial advisor in Highlands with a doctorate degree from Clemson University who serves as chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
Bigger is not always better, but when it comes to census data, larger matters: federal and state funding is often directly tied to the population count.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the growth in the county and the fact that our population has now moved beyond 40,000,” said interim County Manager Chuck Wooten, who also lives in Jackson County because of a job with WCU. Wooten in January retired after 30 years as the top finance officer there.
“The university may very well be one of the factors for growth since the Cullowhee township is now our largest township,” Wooten said. “I’m going to ask (Planner) Gerald Green to dig into the census numbers so we can understand where the growth in the county took place.”
What could the census data mean for Jackson County? Wooten said he hopes to soon understand the unexpected growth and ensuing effects better, but for now: “Obviously, I would anticipate that with the additional growth would come some additional revenues like increased sales tax, etc.,” he said. “But, it could also generate more demands for services so net gain may not be significant.”
Mark Jamison, a resident of Webster, fears Jackson County might lose its identity because of the growth.
“If communities don’t define who they want to be, they let other people and other forces define them and try to catch that wave and ride it wherever it takes them,” Jamison said. “We don’t want to turn our county into nothing but gated developments or a university town.”