SWC initiatives give unified voice to the region
Less money and stiffer competition for grants means that Western North Carolina needs to have a solid plan in place to show the need in the region and stay competitive.
That is exactly what Southwestern Commission Region A has been helping with in recent years with regional planning and marketing efforts like Mountain West Alliance, Opt-In and Smoky Mountain Blueways initiatives.
Mountain West Alliance
Mountain West Alliance, a regional marketing initiative, began in 2014 after the state legislature decided to defund all non-state entities receiving state aid, which included Advantage West — a vital rural economic development entity. Ryan Sherby, SWC’s executive director, said SWC started a conversation in the region about who could take over the marketing and economic development services Advantage West was providing at the time.
“We decided we needed a central clearing house for economic development information — business training, where to find capital, the assets we already have and what products we have to sell to the outside world. No entity was doing that,” he said. “The (SWC) board has given us the charge to be the lead economic development entity in the region.”
With private and governmental partners, SWC is in the strategic planning phase of the effort right now — working on fundraising and building up a database of economic development resources in the region. The final result will be an integrated marketing campaign and the launch of a website to provide entrepreneurs and industries a comprehensive look at what is available in the seven western counties and the Qualla Boundary.
Since the process of starting a business can be confusing for someone who doesn’t know what resources are available, Sherby said the website will help fast-track the process.
“It’s really a virtual collaborative of entities that already exist in the region,” Sherby said. “It’s critical to grow entrepreneurs and small businesses into medium and bring large businesses into the area.”
Thompson said she also hopes the website and marketing campaign will give outsiders an accurate picture of what Western North Carolina is like now and not the stereotypes that are often portrayed.
“We want to show that we’re not the Wild West anymore,” she joked.
More than 100 meetings led by SWC resulted in a clear picture of what is important to people in the region.
The effort was dubbed “Opt-In” — Opportunity Initiative of Southwestern North Carolina — and is about recognizing opportunities and positioning the region to make the most of them. Local business, government and community leaders have guided the process with significant public input on how the seven western counties can collaborate to create a vision for the region’s future.
A team of expert consultants selected by the SWC board conducted a comprehensive analysis of the region — looking at development patterns, commuting habits, the economy, population growth, important landscapes and other factors. Funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration paid for the initiative.
The vision is for all entities in the region to work together to attract new jobs that match the region’s skill level and are attractive to young people.
“Everyone agrees that there is a lack of well-paying jobs in the region, and that many young people are leaving home to find better economic opportunities,” Sherby said. “The economic downturn has only made things more difficult.”
Opt-In also includes a vision for vibrant and pedestrian-friendly towns, efficient transportation systems, protecting mountain culture and natural resources, and improving the quality of life for residents by addressing issues like affordable housing, education levels, access to health care, an aging population and high rates of diabetes and obesity.
The outcome was a new tool — the Regional Investment Guide — to help local governments decide where development, transportation improvements, infrastructure and other investments should occur to minimize the cost of extending services and protecting limited resources.
“The Opt-In process affirmed support for many of the initiatives that we and partnering organizations were currently developing in the region,” Sherby said. “These initiatives — such as the creation of an angel investment fund and a regional marketing entity — coupled with strategies to move transportation and other key infrastructure investments forward were already beginning to take shape."
To see the complete report, visit www.optinswnc.org.
Smoky Mountain Blueways
There is a very blurry line between tourism development and economic development in Western North Carolina, because one begets the other and vice versa.
So it would make sense that Southwestern Commission’s economic development function sometimes dips into the tourism realm.
“We talk about tourism a lot,” Thompson said. “Anybody that comes here will probably be a tourist first. ”
For that reason, SWC thinks it is important to focus on downtown revitalization and making sure communities get funding for recreational projects to encourage tourism. SWC is working with the regional marketing entity Smoky Mountain Host and Duke Energy Foundation on a project — Smoky Mountain Blueways — to highlight the recreational opportunities the region’s rivers and lakes have to offer.
A website is being developed to point tourists to all the water recreation entry points in the region. Sherby said the website will be user-friendly by having an online mapping component to directly lead people to water access points. The site also will have specific information for outdoor enthusiasts, including photos of each site, parking capacity, types of fish, public restroom and picnic areas and where kayaking, fishing and canoeing are allowed.
Duke Energy Foundation has made a significant investment to expand public use and access to waterways, especially on the Nantahala and Tuckasegee rivers.
“We have a tremendous amount of public access to waterways because of Duke and the Forest Service,” Sherby said. “We think we can plant the flag as the premier watersports destination for the Southeast. We’ve got it all.”
The Southwestern Commission awarded $475,000 to local businesses in 2014 through its revolving loan fund.
• Ridgefield Farms in Brasstown was awarded $150,000 to purchase feeder cattle for supplying all natural, locally raised beef to restaurants and retail meat markets.
• The Hub Coffee Shop & Café in Graham County received $25,000 to provide a year-round destination for locals and tourists to dine, rent motorcycles, purchase souvenirs and enjoy downtown Robbinsville.
• BearWaters Brewing Company in Waynesville received $125,000 to assist with the purchase of a 15-barrel brew tank for expansion of the manufacturing operation to meet growing demand.
• Sunburst Trout Farms in Haywood County received $200,000 for a $900,000 plant relocation from its current processing plant at Lake Logan to the Waynesville Industrial Park, which will allow for expansion and increased production.