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Haywood nonprofit seeks greater economic development role

Haywood nonprofit seeks greater economic development role

After a quiet couple of years through the uncertainty of the Coronavirus Pandemic, the Haywood Advancement Foundation is pursuing closer economic development coordination with Haywood County government at a time when the county needs capable strategic partners more than it has in the past two decades. 

Haywood County commissioners signed off on a memorandum of understanding with the foundation during a Feb. 19 meeting, formalizing their 34-year relationship on paper for the first time and promising cooperation in the aftermath of Pactiv Evergreen’s decision to close its paper mill in Canton last year.

“From Haywood Advancement’s perspective, it’s kind of that cooperative olive branch to say, ‘Hey we’re here to help,’” said Patrick Bradshaw, foundation chair, at the meeting. “Let us know how we can help you. We anticipate specific projects may require other things to go along with [them] or accompany them, but we just felt like it would be appropriate to have a starting place, to say we’re here in an effort of cooperation. If we can be of help, call on us.” 

Founded in 1990, Haywood Advancement Foundation is a nonprofit corporation that has acted independently as well as in conjunction with local governments to promote economic growth.

Those contributions range from making small donations for a business plan competition in 2016 to helping establish and endow — with a $250,000 check — the Haywood Strong Recovery Fund early on in the pandemic.

Its legacy, however, lies in much larger economic development projects. Under the guidance of then-Executive Director Mark Clasby, the foundation helped establish the WNC Regional Livestock Center and improved the Beaverdam Industrial Park, both just outside downtown Canton.

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The memorandum specifically cites the foundation’s unique flexibility allowing it to receive and administer grants from local governments to “purchase, develop and sell” land.

That’s exactly how HAF scored one of the county’s biggest-ever economic development wins, during a crisis that today sounds vaguely familiar.

A large industrial concern closed down, throwing nearly a thousand people out of work, damaging the tax base and leaving behind substantially underutilized acreage rife with environmental problems after decades of misuse.

The year was 2007, the company was Dayco, and it had taken nearly 10 years to find the right buyers for the 35-acre site that eventually became the Walmart off Hyatt Creek Road.

That came after a three-year process to get the parcel into the proper hands following at least one private redevelopment effort that failed.

Haywood County and the Town of Waynesville each gave the foundation $650,000 to purchase the Dayco site out of bankruptcy. The foundation flipped it to developers for $2.1 million, paid back the town and the county, and kept whatever was left.

Last fall, the foundation reconstituted its membership to establish seven board seats by position: the county’s manager and economic development director, the chamber of commerce president, the TDA director, the school district’s superintendent, the community college president and the executive director of the Southwestern Commission.

Those institutional members in turn elected six at-large board members with varying stakes in the community and varying skillsets: Bradshaw, of Civil Design Concepts engineering, Matt Haynes of Premier Magnesia, Jennifer Bennett of Duke Energy, Kaleb Rathbone of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Chris Brown, CEO at Haywood Regional Medical Center and Jake Robinson, CEO of Champion Credit Union.

“The parties expect a revitalized foundation will take a more proactive role in economic development by offering advice and guidance to the county. The county will rely on the foundation’s business expertise to assist with new and expanding businesses, potential grants and partnerships with state, regional and local governmental units,” Bradshaw said in the memorandum.

One aspect of that proactive role will be in making funds available “when such funds could be instrumental in advancing specific projects.” 

The county can also work with the foundation and utilize its nonprofit status to pursue grants unavailable to local governments.

 “I’ve seen the good work that [the foundation] has done,” said longtime Haywood commissioner and current chair, Kevin Ensley. “I think early on, we did a lot of work and then probably in the last 10 years, it’s not been as much because of the recession … once Dayco was done, that was kind of it for a while.”

Under the general terms of the agreement, the parties will operate from more detailed agreements for specific projects.

It’s thought that HAF might have around $2 million right now, but online financial records aren’t current.

“We don’t have a ton of money to date, but we’re pretty pivot-able, if you will,” Bradshaw told commissioners. “We can act somewhat quicker, I think, than let’s say county government can for instance. We want to be that aid.”

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