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Substantial economic development planning effort underway in Haywood

Community and Economic Development Director David Francis will lead the creation of a post-mill economic development strategy. Haywood County government photo Community and Economic Development Director David Francis will lead the creation of a post-mill economic development strategy. Haywood County government photo

Calling the last decade “a period of intensive and dynamic change” for Haywood County, strategic planning consultants in conjunction with county economic development administrators will produce a late spring report for commissioners identifying local priorities, challenges and concerns augmented by the closure of the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill in Canton last year. 

Clyde-based Shining Rock Ventures, lead consultant on the project, says it plans to hold approximately 40 in-person and/or online 45-minute private interviews over eight to 12 weeks.

The interviews will be conducted with a diverse group of key stakeholders including but not limited to local government officials, business leaders, the creative class, utility providers, healthcare leaders, law enforcement and, according to SRV’s scope of work proposal, thoughtful citizens.

Feedback gleaned from the sessions will contribute to the Haywood County Recovery and Resiliency Roadmap Plan, a fresh five- to 10-year approach to economic development in a post-mill environment.

Although the mill’s closing — which the proposal says created a “significant short- to mid-term gap” in the local economy— remains a concern, the county’s lack of affordable housing, high development costs, escalating environmental challenges, aging infrastructure and proximity to encroaching Asheville all threaten economic and social stability.  

The plan has its origins in the immediate aftermath of Pactiv Evergreen’s March 6, 2023 announcement that it would close its century-old paper mill in Canton, throwing nearly 1,000 people out of work, damaging the tax base and leaving behind substantially underutilized acreage rife with environmental problems after decades of misuse.

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“After the mill closure, a lot of people had lots of opinions on what to do next — advice we received from other elected boards, from people around the community,” said David Francis, community and economic development director for Haywood County, in a presentation to Haywood County Commissioners Feb. 19. “So, we started looking around [thinking] about, what’s the next step? What are we going to do after the mill? How are we going to tackle this?”

A small group of strategists, led by Francis, began meeting and reviewed old county plans created after the 2004 flood and during the Great Recession. Discussing larger visions and processes, the group felt that listening sessions would be a good start.

SRV, led by Southern Appalachian native Jesse Fripp, has both extensive and recent experience in strategic planning of this scale. The consultancy led the development of the Mountain West Partnership’s 2022 strategic plan, as well as Dogwood Health Trust’s 2022 capital landscape assessment.

David Lilly, a Sylva-based growth and development advisor with a background in ecommerce and clean technology, will work with Fripp as principal consultant.

The project timeline shows the first group of interviews, with an estimated 28 public officials, will begin at once and finish up around March 4. The second group of interviews, with an estimated 11 people from the private sector, begins immediately after the first and should end by March 18. After that, the third group, labeled “community/other,” will commence, comprised of only four sessions.  

A round of follow-up interviews and deep dives are slated for early April.

The consultants will perform the work for a flat fee of $53,750 plus up to $2,588 in expenses for a total cost of $56,338. Funding for the plan comes in the form of a $50,000 grant from Dogwood, and an additional $6,338 from the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.

Commissioners approved the project unanimously. Commissioner Tommy Long asked Francis to restate how the project would be funded, and Francis responded that the $50,000 grant from Dogwood was only a small portion of the $250,000 the nonprofit had donated to the county for planning purposes. BlueCross BlueShield donated $500,000 for the same reason.

The draft and final reports are due by mid-April. The report, which should be available to the public in early May, Francis told The Smoky Mountain News, is advisory in nature.

“This is a guide, not a policy,” he said.

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