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Wednesday, 04 July 2012 12:20

WNC vitality index provides data-driven look at region

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A one-of-a-kind database that encompasses virtually every aspect of life in Western North Carolina, from ecology to economics, is now available to decision makers, business leaders and the public. 

The Mountain Resources Commission, a group formed in 2009 to study environmental and economic issues facing WNC, recently unveiled the vitality index. 

The index is a compilation of data that already exists in various forms, but that has never been available in one easily accessible website. The site features 183-pages of information that can be downloaded, data that is sorted into searchable categories and a GIS viewer that allows users to layer multiple data sets on a map of the state’s 27 westernmost counties. 

The data can be sliced and diced in infinite ways. Prospective employers could combine population, income and age for demographic analysis. Or development density, forests and farmland, and steep slopes could be layered and mapped to help guide conservation work by land trusts.

“We had access to business data, census data, Department of Labor data about workers and other data. We put all of this together, and it became this incredible tool,” said David Gantt, an Asheville attorney who chairs the Mountain Resource Commission. “This is something that has never been done before.”

The site will be maintained and continually updated by Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University.

The vitality index was paid for with a $39,225 grant through the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and an $18,000 grant through the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station.

Bill Gibson, the director of the Southwestern Commission who serves on the 17-member Mountain Resources Commission board, said he thinks the most likely consumer of the site will be businesses.

“More and more decisions at all levels, particularly in the private sector, are data driven,” Gibson said. “Whether it be commercial like a hotel chain or a Lowe’s, they understand what their market is and understand the demographics before they make a decision to locate or expand. We don’t do nearly as many decisions as we used to by the seat of your pants.”

Gibson emphasized that the vitality index is geared toward any type of business or user who has need of data.

“It’s a really neutral compilation of data about our region in my opinion,” said Gibson.

Bill Yarborough, regional agronomist for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and a member of a technical advisory group that helped develop the site, agreed with Gibson that the vitality index could prove critical to helping attract new businesses into WNC.

“It can be used for a lot of different things, but if you are trying to recruit businesses into here, a lot of times they ask these kind of questions,” Yarborough said. “Now the information is all in one place, and you don’t have to go to 20 different organizations or websites to try to find it.”

Yarborough said the technical advisory group found its start in a U.S. Forest Service-compiled Southern forest index. 

“So we had the basis of this program. It gave us a template,” Yarborough said, explaining the group layered additional information and data on top of the Southern forest index.

 

Resource commission almost axed

The vitality index marks the first major project of the Mountain Resources Commission, which was recently threatened with being disbanded by the General Assembly. The group in May was included in a long list of boards and commissions facing the chopping block under an N.C. Senate bill titled the Boards and Commissions Efficiency Act of 2012.

“I think there was some misunderstanding with the General Assembly that we were regulatory, which we are not, and that we were costing the state money, which we don’t,” said Gantt.

The Mountain Resources Commission rallied the troops, and a number of public officials spoke or wrote letters in support of saving the commission.

As a result of the widespread, bipartisan support, the latest version of the efficiency act spares the Mountain Resources Commission, Gantt said.

 

The vitality index toolbox

The vitality index, housed at www.wncvitalityindex.org, has compiled a dizzying amount of information within four major categories.

The Natural Environment: An analysis of the topography, geography and biological resources of the region, such as soil types, past rockslides, water quality and air quality.

The Human Environment: A look at the region’s craft, local music, art, heritage and spiritual values, such as population counts, historical population trends and deaths from heart disease, stroke and cancer.

The Built Environment: A survey of land use, housing, transportation, water supply, energy, hazards and risks, such as timberland ownership, how the land is used and how much sustainable affordable housing the region has.

The Economic Environment: Data on income, poverty, employment, agriculture, forestry and tourism, including tourism, employment numbers and income levels.

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