Selling Haywood County: Economic development partnership revs up
On the west side of Jonathan Creek Road in Haywood County sits a parcel of land where crops and cows are being rapidly replaced by bulldozers and cones and piles upon piles of dirt.
That county-owned 22-acre plot bordered by an idyllic creek at the base of a small mountain may be one of the keys to future economic prosperity as one of the largest and most shovel-ready sites in the area.
But the Jonathan Creek site — and others in Haywood County of varying size, shape and purpose — are nothing without a buyer, and as of Jan. 1 it became the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s responsibility to help find one.
Through a unique regional partnership, Haywood has outsourced much of its economic development activity to the AACC, which will simultaneously market Haywood properties along with those in Buncombe. The challenges and opportunities of this new paradigm are clearly visible, but what remains to be seen is how successful it will be in selling Haywood County.
A bigger stage
The agreement between the Haywood and Asheville chambers represents a new approach to economic development for rural counties such as Haywood.
“The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Council had meetings over a period of time and decided that we needed to improve our efforts of economic development in Haywood County,” said Haywood Chamber President CeCe Hipps. “So what we decided is, why don’t we ask our partners to the east of us, Asheville, to assist us in marketing our community, and marketing our commercial sites and providing additional job opportunities in Haywood County?”
Haywood and Buncombe counties have long had an economic relationship that is inextricably linked, but with a population four times the size of Haywood’s, Buncombe County brings a lot more force to bear when competing for the attention of businesses looking for a site.
“They have a lot of technology advancements that we don’t have and cannot afford to have,” Hipps said.
Not that Haywood hasn’t scored its own economic development victories in the past — even luring an Asheville truck dealership to Canton in 2016 — but the retirement of Haywood Economic Development Council Director Mark Clasby last December signaled not only the end of an era that brought Walmart and Publix to Waynesville, but also the beginning of a new era in which outsourcing economic development makes better financial sense.
“The concept of regionalism is something that this community has always put as a priority,” said EDC Board Chairman Jason Walls of Duke Energy. “So leveraging the breadth and depth of our adjoining county and their economic development arm can be really helpful as we continue to market and grow our economy here locally.”
Asheville’s brand remains strong across the country; nestled into a bowl-shaped valley that spans the French Broad River, the town and its environs are known for natural beauty and eclectic diversity in a state with the some of the lowest business taxes in the nation; companies want to locate there because workers want to live there.
That growth, however, has rapidly consumed large swaths of Buncombe’s developable land and driven rents through the roof; Haywood, on the other hand, has some prime acreage and more reasonable — albeit climbing — housing and commercial rents, along with similar access to highways, railways and runways.
“As folks from the Asheville Chamber are travelling, their ability to sell all of this region — to help recruit business and industry here — will really help to rise all the tides in this community,” Walls said. “It allows us to be seen on a bigger stage with more people at more times, and really will be helpful as we continue to market and grow here.”
The grand tour
Last November, Haywood commissioners gave their blessing to the three-year deal, which will cost about $100,000 a year; the EDC technically falls under the auspices of the Haywood Chamber, but county commissioners fund its operations to the tune of just over $200,000 annually.
The Asheville Area Chamber’s economic development arm alone is many times the size of Haywood’s entire chamber, and has seen recent successes — New Belgium Brewing and Avadim Technologies, for example — that have made it the envy of municipalities across the country.
“I think that we’ve been very, very focused on a strategy of knowing who we are, and matching that up with who might be attracted to that,” said Ben Teague, chief operating officer of the AACC and executive director of the Asheville Economic Development Coalition. “Over the last number of years we’ve probably done $1.1 billion worth of economic activity, and I think that’s spurred a lot of momentum that Haywood County and Buncombe County as a region can latch onto, and continue to work together toward the future.”
For Teague and AACC Vice President of Economic Development Clark Duncan, Haywood County isn’t exactly terra incognita.
“I have some generational connectivity to Haywood County. I know a lot of the fishing holes and things like that,” said Duncan. “But I’ve long been familiar with the numbers. The workforce, the talent, the demographics are all trending in really positive directions.”
What he and Teague weren’t completely familiar with are the Haywood sites they’d be charged with marketing, so on Jan. 19 Haywood officials escorted Teague and Duncan around the county on a Leap Frog Tours bus.
“Touring through the different towns and through the county, it really felt like a slice of Americana meets the beautiful mountains,” Teague said. “Mixed throughout, there were great sites for industrial [development] and sites for entrepreneurs.”
One of those, presumably, is the Jonathan Creek site, which has languished since 2007; after winning a lengthy bidding war with a private developer — which drove the price up to $1.1 million — the county saw plans for a recreational sports complex fall flat as the Great Recession proceeded to erase a decade’s worth of economic growth in the region.
Once adjoining counties created recreational sports complexes of their own — which draw tournaments, and tourists, and tax receipts — the Jonathan Creek site became a bit of a red herring in the county’s portfolio.
Its sale is now a top priority as the property, which has sewer, water, electric and is just 2.5 miles from Interstate 40, is no longer leased to a local farmer like it had been; truckloads of dirt from the new Publix site on Russ Avenue are currently being dumped there to create more usable land.
Jonathan Creek’s not the only site Teague and Duncan saw on their tour; there are a number of parcels around the county — some not publicly listed for sale — that are ripe for development.
One well-known spot just outside of Canton is at the Beaverdam Industrial Park. That site remains an attractive option, just as it was when Clasby plowed the profits from the Walmart deal into site improvements.
Beaverdam’s been a boon to the county and to Canton, the closest Haywood municipality to Asheville.
“The character of our community — very blue collar, driven, a lot of historic buildings — I think syncs well with what you see with the growth in Asheville,” said Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers. “You go to a place like West Asheville and you can close your eyes and I think what you see is what Canton will be in several years.”
Smathers joined the tour in Canton at Bearwaters Brewing, after it had spent the morning exploring the Howell Mill Road corridor with Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown and visiting Elevated Mountain Distilling in Maggie Valley with Town Manager Nathan Clark.
Haywood County’s Program Administrator David Francis, Planning Director Kris Boyd and Solid Waste Program Coordinator Randy Siske joined Hipps and Walls on the tour; County Commissioner Mike Sorrells — who sits on the EDC board — was present for lunch at Boojum Brewing.
“Unified communities win projects they never should have won,” Duncan said during the tour. “Divided communities lose projects they never should have lost.”
Later, in the cavernous, barrel-roofed former Willy’s Jeep Truck dealership that’s now home to Bearwaters, Teague’s comments echoed Duncan’s.
“What was really exciting to hear is this kind of tremendous unity of spirit — across elected officials, across governmental positions, across business executives — to see really great things happen in Haywood County,” Teague said.
But the bottom line is the bottom line; as paid marketers, what do the economic development execs from Asheville think of Haywood County’s assets?
“I think there’s great potential and I think there’s already really great interest in our client base to understand what we have long said, which is Asheville is an extremely diverse community,” said Duncan, speaking of the regional community at large that includes Haywood County. “You have this urban center, but you have this wealth of really high-quality ‘main street’ communities, where you have all kinds of different economic development opportunities.”
Haywood’s municipalities compare favorably with Buncombe’s, especially given Haywood’s public school system, which again ranked 11th of 115 in the state; with more traffic, higher costs and less unspoiled wilderness, Buncombe may eventually have to reassure itself that it can still compete with Haywood.
“They don’t sell one county over the other county,” Walls said of the AACC. “They want to help match a business that’s looking with a site that’s appropriate, so that we can grow as a region and really benefit from one another. So it’s not about selling Buncombe County over Haywood County, it’s really about bringing all that both communities have to offer, and letting that client make the best decision that’s in the best interest of their business.”
What’s not as widely known is that the Haywood Chamber and the AACC already have a preexisting history of cooperation, at least on matters of public policy; issues of regional economic interest are oft voiced in unison in Raleigh, and will continue to be as the partnership moves forward.
“One of the things we really want to focus on is the tier system,” Teague said of the yearly North Carolina Department of Commerce designation that determines the level of economic distress a county is experiencing, and parcels out precious economic development incentives accordingly.
Such incentives — in addition to formal incentive guidelines recently passed by Waynesville aldermen and Haywood commissioners — directly influence the packages economic developers can offer potential clients.
Controversially, Haywood County was in 2017 moved from tier two to tier three, vaulting it from a middling yet realistic rank into competition with the state’s most prosperous counties, like Buncombe, Henderson, Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake.
Having just three tiers, the NCDC’s ranking system is like a stoplight showing only red, yellow or green, while the true colors of economic distress are often more of a rainbow, despite the black and white notion of tiny Haywood taking on mighty Wake.
“It seems a disadvantage to Haywood County to be a tier three and compete with some of the largest communities in the state,” Teague said. “So we want to maybe take another look at that and see if there’s a way we can influence that to our benefit.”
Nevertheless, Duncan still sees opportunity for mutual benefit.
“What is unique that I saw today — we got out and walked several sites that are, I think, really ripe for economic development, for quality job creation,” he said.
In a larger sense, the biggest result of this unique partnership may just be a reset in economic development thinking that flows from the banks of Jonathan Creek to eventually permeate the county, region and state.
“I think the paradigm shift is, we all have to learn how to celebrate economic wins no matter where they are in the metro area,” Duncan said. “If a job is created in Haywood County, that’s great for neighbors in Buncombe County. If jobs are created in Buncombe County, that’s great for the economic stability of Haywood County, and I think this partnership recognizes that truth.”