Survey says … Business poll sets the stage for new day in Jackson economic strategy

fr econsurveyAfter several stumbling blocks, disbanded boards and departed directors, proponents of a Jackson County economic development program hope to soon be back on course.

Business community lends a hand with start-up grants

Two businesses — Copper Pot and Wooden Spoon, and Belle on Main Salon and Spa — came out winners during the Haywood Chamber of Commerce’s seventh annual Business Start-up Competition this year.

Thirteen entrepreneurs contended for the $10,000 prize purse this year. The competition is judged by a four-person panel of representatives from the economic development and financial sectors in the county. The field is then narrowed to two before a winner is announced. However, this year, both finalists were named victors, splitting the money in half.

“Both have a great deal of passion. They have a passion that they eat, breathe and sleep,” said Charles Umberger, chairman of the Chamber’s Business and Economic Development Committee and president and CEO of Old Town Bank.

Contestants had to submit a detailed business plan describing their concept, current progress and future goals. While the winning businesses get a tangible boost in their start-up venture, one virtue of the competition is simply encouraging entrepreneurs to formulate a business plan, so even those who don’t win are still better off for going through the process.

The winning submissions had “lots of good things,” Umberger said.

Small businesses account for millions and millions of new jobs in the U.S. every year. That is why the chamber and other sponsors continue to reward quality small business ideas annually, Umberger said.

“Small business matters in the United States. It matters big time,” Umberger said.

A key pillar of economic development is to promote the start-up and expansion of local and small businesses in Haywood County.

“I have never been anywhere as entrepreneur-friendly as Haywood County,” said Ken Flynt, a longtime banking executive, finance professor at Western Carolina University and Chamber board member. “This really is a great place for entrepreneurs.”

In addition to the chamber, other competition sponsors include BB&T, Old Town Bank, Evergreen Packaging, Haywood Vocational Opportunities, Beverly Hanks, Clark & Leatherwood, Northwestern Mutual, Smoky Mountain Development, Haywood County Economic Development Commission, the Western Carolina University College of Business, Haywood Advancement Foundation, Aermor and Haywood Community College’s Small Business Center.

 

Artisan foods, salon take prize for best business plan

The winners of this year’s Haywood County Chamber of Commerce Business Start-up Competition represent the two sides of business — goods and service.

One provides a valued service to consumers, while the other sells quality products. Each received $5,000 for winning the contest for entrepreneurs with the promise of creating jobs this year.

Belle on Main Salon and Spa

Belle on Main Salon and Spa opened less than a month ago on South Main Street in Waynesville. The business is a full-service salon and owned by Joey Del Bosque, who previously worked solely as a masseur.

“I’ve been self-employed for a very longtime, and this was an opportunity to branch out,” Del Bosque said.

Del Bosque is a certified massage therapist with 16 years experience and received his certification in cosmetic arts from Haywood Community College. He also holds a business and accounting degree and worked as an accountant for 10 years.

The salon is “ clean, bright, new, modern,” said Charles Umberger, the president of Old Town Bank who announced the winners on behalf of the chamber at a luncheon last week. The business plan was impressive because it exhibited Del Bosque’s money management background, with goals, projections and budgets, Umberger said.

The salon has been a dream for Del Bosque for a while, and he was able to reach out to others for help.

“By God, he pulled it off,” Umberger said. “Through family, friends and angels, he got some start-up financing.”

Del Bosque will use the money from the competition to advertise his new business, helping to ensure its success.

“(The money) means an opportunity to launch our name,” Del Bosque said.

Copper Pot and Wooden Spoon

The second time’s a charm for Copper Pot and Wooden Spoon. After entering the competition last year, the owners, a pair of sisters-in-law, decided to try again and took home half of this year’s $10,000 prize.

Dayna Stubee and Jessica DeMarco started the venture about a year ago and are the sole employees. The business makes and sells jams, pickles and other artisan foods using ingredients from six local farms.

“It is something we have always done as a family thing,” DeMarco said. Both women have degrees in culinary arts.

The business has no storefront currently, but they sell their goods at the Historic Waynesville Farmers Market and on Etsy.com. With the money, the pair plans to hire a part-time employee and expand their production.

Part of the reason they were chosen was because of their focus on handcrafted items and local sustainability, Umberger said.

Maggie Valley wants to know: what should its future hold?

Business owners needs to put aside their bickering and resentments for the good of Maggie Valley, Mayor Ron DeSimone emphasized last week.

“This community has been divided for a long time,” DeSimone said at a Maggie Chamber of Commerce meeting last Tuesday. “We need a united voice. We need to come together.”

A builder and architect by trade, DeSimone likes to have a plan, but he said he needs help to make a comprehensive business plan for Maggie Valley.

“I’ve created a business plan for my business but not for a whole valley,” DeSimone said. “All I am asking for is a little of your time.”

With help from the Southwestern Commission, Maggie Valley received a $20,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Center to develop such a plan for the valley. The commission also pointed the town to Craig Madison, the former president and CEO of the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa. Madison, along with Maggie leaders, will travel from business to business talking to people about what they want for the valley.

Input from business owners will be the heart of the plan, DeSimone said.

“This is their plan. It belongs to the valley,” DeSimone said. “We are here to get it started.”

Madison will also be involved in crafting an economic development plan that will create a unique identity for the town, set goals for the valley, quantitatively measure growth and, most importantly, give Maggie a singular, cohesive vision.

“Something that tells us if we are on the right path,” DeSimone said.

Maggie Valley was hit hard by the recession and has been criticized in the past for pinning all its hopes and dreams on Ghost Town in the Sky, a once-popular amusement park, which like the valley fell into decline. The park was in foreclosure for a few years before longtime resident Alaska Presley bought Ghost Town and vowed to revive it.

But, people cannot expect her to save Maggie and must find some other baskets to put their eggs in, DeSimone said.

“Alaska can’t do this by herself. She can’t carry the valley,” DeSimone said.

Presley was on hand at the meeting to update attendees on the amusement park, which she hopes to re-open around July 1. Presley will only open the first of the park’s three levels. The lowest level will include a zipline and refurbished versions of some of Ghost Town’s original rides.

“The progress there is good,” Presley said. “There is enough that people would enjoy it.”

The chair lift that takes visitors up the mountain to the park is nearly fixed, and work will soon begin on the incline railway, another mode of transportation up the mountainside. However, the railway will take at least five months to fix. Work has also begun on the zipline.

Workers are still in the process of digging wells to meet Ghost Town’s water supply needs and then will need to redo the park’s plumbing, which was damaged during the seasonal freeze and thaw. However, come hell or high water, Presley is confident that the mountain will re-open by mid-summer and that she will slowly be able to restore the other two levels of the park, which will feature an Old West Town and religious-themed elements.

The calling card of tourism pays off in the mountains

In addition to the obvious benefits of tourism — jobs and revenue for the county — tourism dollars save Haywood County residents a few hundred dollars in taxes every year.

Steve Morse, a mathematics professor at the University of Tennessee, presented business owners and county tourism leaders with a faux jumbo check made out to “Each County Household.” The check was for $334.

Without tourism dollars, every household would be paying out that much more money in taxes each year.

Tourists are “temporary taxpayers,” said Morse, who spoke at a luncheon sponsored by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority celebrating National Tourism Week.

“What a country! Where you can have people say, ‘Please come pay part of our taxes,’ and people say, ‘Sure,’” Morse said.

The tourism and hospitality industry constitute one-fifth of the jobs in Haywood County, Morse added.

“Tourism plays a large role in many people’s lives,” Morse said.

Even that truism seems like an understatement when looking at recent tourism spending numbers, which have rebounded back to pre-recession figures.

In 2007, $116.7 million was spent on tourism in Haywood County — only $400,000 more than in 2010.

“As we look forward, we see a bright future,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

One particular advantage that Haywood County, and Western North Carolina in general, have over other parts of the country is an abundance of adventure activities — kayaking, mountain biking, hiking and the like.

“Adventure tourism is hot as a firecracker,” Morse said.

Morse pointed out that the same perks that make Haywood County a great place to visit can turn those visitors into residents or business owners.

“Today’s visitor could tomorrow’s business investor,” Morse said.

And, although good schools, affordable housing, available transportation and low tax and crime rates are still important, the next generation of entrepreneurs is also looking for open spaces, “local, unique flavor,” a sense of community, diverse cultures and natural resources when finding a place to settle.

“They want to live in Mayberry,” Morse said.

With changes in technology, people will be able to work from pretty much anywhere, he said, and Haywood County should play up its attributes to draw in new residents and businesses.

“People will change to live and work in places with diverse cultures,” Morse said.

Cherokee crafts plans for tree-top canopy walk and family adventure park

The next five years could include the construction of an adventure park, a canopy walk and another casino for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, according to a preliminary outline of its 2012 economic development plan.

Every five years, the Eastern Band creates an updated economic development plan that outlines what the tribe accomplished during the previous five years and its plans for the future.

Several items in the 2012 strategic plan are simply continuations of work started in 2007, such as diversifying its attractions.

With the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel being its main draw, a number of Cherokee’s visitors are 21 years or older. To create greater family appeal, the tribe is looking into the possibility of adding a canopy walk  — a high-elevation nature stroll through the tree tops. The attraction would feature suspended bridges stretching from tree to tree and give visitors a bird’s eye view of the area.

“The environment, the mountains, the streams and everything are so important to Cherokee,” said Doug Cole, a strategic planner with the Eastern Band. “(The canopy walk) takes advantage of that; it doesn’t try to degrade it.”

A likely locale for the canopy walk would be near Mt. Noble in Birdtown, Cole said.

In addition to the walk, the tribe is also making plans to construct a family friendly adventure park, an idea that it has tossed around for a while. The park could include various activities, such as a zipline and climbing wall, as well as a water park. The facility would be open year-round, with some elements inside and some outside.

“There is an opportunity there for the kids and family market,” Cole said. “It could be something that all Western North Carolina could be proud of.”

After finding that project is indeed feasible and that there is enough demand, the Eastern Band then began looking into how it could finance its construction — something it is still figuring out. The park could cost between $90 million and $100 million, Cole estimated, calling the numbers a “pure guess.”

“It really depends upon … how much we want to build,” Cole said.

An adventure park would also help with another goal of the tribe — to diversify its job opportunities and revenue streams.

“I think diversifying the income from the tribe is very important. Right now, we depend on the casino quite a bit,” Cole said. “You don’t want to have all of your eggs in one basket.”

That is not to say that enrolled members are not grateful for the support the casino provides. In fact, the tribe has discussed expanding its gambling operations, not just within its current casino but also to another part of the reservations.

For a while, the tribe has discussed the possibility of building new casinos on other tribally owned lands. And now that the living gaming compact is looking more likely to pass, building a small-scale casino in Cherokee County is the gaming commission’s No. 1 priority, said Don Rose, a member of the commission. It would not be a full-fledged casino but would be more than a bingo hall, and Harrah’s would not necessarily be affiliated with the new casino.

“This would be a totally separate casino,” Rose said.

Although a large portion of the economic plan involves tourism, it also addresses quality of life for enrolled members.

The reservation only has one large commercial grocery, Food Lion, and no national retail stores. Many enrolled members must drive to the Walmart in Sylva for the simplest things.

“If you wanted to buy a tie or shirt, you would have to drive to Sylva and back,” Cole said. “We need to have that available.”

There is also no drug store, like a Walgreens or CVS, where enrolled members or even visitors can easily pick up a prescription when necessary, he said.

The tribe will also look into investing more into tribally owned businesses through operations such as the Sequoyah Fund.

The blueprint, formally called the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, helps the tribe when applying for federal monies.

Since 2007, when the last plan was drafted, the Eastern Band has received $3.37 million for economic development projects, states the report.

Mostly, however, the economic strategy plan is a map detailing what the Eastern Band hopes to achieve during the next half decade.

“The real reason we do this is to keep us on strategy on what we want to do during the next five years,” said Cole. “Hopefully by 2017, we can make a lot of that happen, too.”

It’s track record on seeing project through has been surprisingly good. Past CEDS projects include the construction of the Sequoyah National Golf Club, a movie theater, a skate park and smattering the reservation with painted bear statues, among others.

The tribe will spend this month prioritizing projects and developing action plans. A final draft of the economic development strategy will be submitted to the U.S. Economic Development Administration by the end of September.

 

Speak out

To voice your opinion, review the plan or find out information about public meetings regarding the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, visit

nctomorrow.org/cherokeequallaboundary.

What’s in a name? Image is everything when it comes to slogans

Tee Coker and his company recently learned firsthand something they probably already suspected about creating brands and taglines for towns. Forget about pleasing everyone: it can be an insurmountable challenge to please anyone at all when it comes to developing exactly the right slogan for a community.

“It turned out a tagline wasn’t something Highlands either wanted or needed,” Coker said, perhaps reminded about Coca-Cola and its legendary public-relations disaster with “new Coke.”

Coker and his marketing consultant company, Arnette, Muldrow & Associates, were trying to convince Highlands’ leaders that the town had an upgraded image and needed a new slogan to match. Coker’s masterpiece — “Simply Stunning” — was destined for the same dustbin of history as new Coke, however.

Coker didn’t take the rejection personally, it should be noted. That’s just part of the job when your profession is developing taglines or slogans.

“It’s fun to do this for the most part,” Coker said. “But, it’s certainly challenging.”

Coker said that each community the company works with has its own personalities involved and various motivations at play for developing taglines. That can make reaching consensus difficult.

In Western North Carolina, quite a few communities have adopted a brand and slogan. Maggie Valley is “Can you come out and play?” Franklin is “Discover us.” Macon County is “Enjoy the beauty, discover the life.”

The challenge is coming up with a slogan or motto that highlights a community’s assets and creates an identity to distinguish it from other places. That can be difficult because everyone here, more or less, plays off our mountain locale.

In Haywood County, the tourism agency uses “See yourself in the Smokies.” Neighboring Cherokee is “Meet me in the Smokies.”

In local communities, the task of picking taglines has been taken up by marketing professionals, town officials, residents and wide assortments of tourism-oriented committees.

 

Community pride

In Western North Carolina, logos and slogans reflect the heritage, history and image of the region’s towns.

Big cities use big dollars to brand and create taglines. New York is “The city that never sleeps.” Chicago is the “Windy City.” Virginia is for lovers. Las Vegas is “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Austin is “Keep Austin weird.”

But, branding and taglines are not just for the big cities of the world. When any city, county or state adopts a tagline, slogan or motto, it’s pitching that destination as a place to visit, live or work.

“We wanted something understated and unique to Highlands,” said Ron Shaffner, design committee chairman for the Highlands Small Town Main Street Program. “‘Simply Stunning’ sounded like something that relates to weddings or diamonds — and that’s not Highlands. We felt ‘Simply Stunning’ might become ‘Simply Cliché’ after 10 years or so.”

Arnette, Muldrow & Associates led a series of roundtables in Highlands during two days in February. While the “Simply Stunning” slogan is a no-go, the design committee has pretty much settled on a suitably understated logo: an image of a tree simply baring the town’s name, “Highlands, North Carolina.”

“It turns out Highlands doesn’t really have to market itself aggressively so it isn’t that shocking that they don’t want a tagline. Highlands is a special case in many ways — there’s not really any other analogous communities in the Southeast,” Coker said.

The logo is simple and small enough to fit on a lapel pin or to go on letterheads or even on the sides of town vehicles.

The town might use its elevation — 4,118 feet — in branding efforts too, he said. The Highlands Chamber of Commerce already capitalizes on that claim to fame as the basis for its distinguishing slogan “Above it all.”

 

A changing community

“The tough thing about it is trying to make a tagline that is all things to all people,” said Matt Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.

Cherokee, as much as any community in WNC, is in transition. For decades the Cherokee Indian Reservation marketed itself as a family destination for cultural events. That’s still true, but now you also have Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort and such specialty niches as trout fishing on the Oconaluftee River.

Pegg said a good slogan must reflect the myriad nature of the offerings in a community such as Cherokee but not be so generic as to be useless.

“And there’s probably not another place you can go from the National Park to all the glitz and glamour of what will be at Harrah’s,” Pegg said, referring to the casino expansion and the new casino entrance under construction. Known as the rotunda, the new entrance that will feature shining five-story trees made of colored glass, with a 75-foot waterfall cascading down the middle and a 140-foot screen wrapping around the walls where choreographed light and surround-sound shows will be projected.

Pegg said committees and marketing professionals helped develop Cherokee’s taglines, including the currently in use “Meet me in the Smokies.”

“If it’s something we can do we try to do it internally, but we’ll certainly bring in groups to help, too,” Pegg said.

 

Heeding demographics

Until recently, neighboring Swain County like Cherokee played off of its position next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For several years, Bryson City used “base camp for adventure.” After reviewing visitor demographics, the town opted to change course, however.

Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, said that it turned out the most important decision maker when it comes to trips to Swain County is actually 40-year-old women. The “base camp for adventure” was deemed too extreme to attract a wide cross section of visitors, particularly that imaginary 40-year-old woman.

“We do get a lot of younger folks, but we didn’t want to scare off that other demographic by saying we’re too extreme,” Wilmot said, saying she didn’t think most 40-year-old women were looking for freestyle kayaking events or to mountain bike at Tsali Recreation Area, two well known Swain County-based sports possibilities.

“We wanted to think about that armchair adventurer, too,” Wilmot said, saying the tourism agency wanted to include gentler outdoor adventuring such as walking up Deep Creek to see the waterfalls.

In the end, the tagline chosen was open ended: “My Bryson City is …. (you fill in the blank).” The message, and the photo accompanying it, changes according to the publication viewers being targeted — “My Bryson City is dazzling” might accompany an advertisement highlighting autumn color. “My Bryson City is the Dragon” could accompany a photo of a motorcyclist targeting a riding audience.

“It is an easily manipulated yet consistent message,” Wilmot said, adding that an advertising firm helped develop Bryson City’s changing tagline.

“We were all sort of thinking the same things, and we knocked ideas around in a creative meeting then took a couple ideas to the board,” she said.

Bryson City is also an example of how difficult it can be to rid yourself of an old tagline you might have outgrown. For years the town went by “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon,” and in fact, there’s still a sign on old U.S. 19 coming into town boasting this fact. Brad Walker, a former town mayor who’s long been involved in the hotel business in WNC, said that particular tagline of “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon” was developed by the tourism agency in Swain County some 10 or 15 years ago.

“We were trying to figure out what the town is. And we decided the biggest thing we are is that we are in the Smokies, and we are the opposite of Gatlinburg,” Walker said.

So “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon” really meant not Gatlinburg, Walker said.

Asheville, formerly “Altitude affects attitude,” has also undergone a change that reflects the city’s transition and newest image as a center of all-things-hip. Asheville is now “Any way you like it.”

Taglines and identities can be funny things. Some communities — in this case, Bryson City once again — can be downright protective of them. Bryson City recently took issue to the wording on a public art piece being installed on Main Street in Waynesville.

Donations are helping erect a replica of a historic arch that once spanned Waynesville’s main street, proclaiming the town as the “Eastern Entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

That wording was too long for the artistic replica, however, so instead it will bear the words “Gateway to the Smokies.”

Not long after news stories ran about the arch, Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway received a phone call from Bryson City Town Manager Lee Callicutt regarding the wording on the arch. It was a slogan that Bryson City has used on its seal and police department badges for decades.

Callicutt had been directed to pass the concern of the Town of Bryson City onto Waynesville. The concern was duly noted but nothing came out of it.

 

Deciding around the table

Advertising agencies and companies can spend a fortune writing the right tagline. Small towns don’t have that kind of money. So sometimes they simply borrow.

Macon County’s current tagline, “Enjoy the beauty, discover the life” is a tweaked version of one a small business there was using, said Linda Harbuck, longtime executive director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce.

Committees are used in Macon County to decide on taglines, saving on dollars and tapping local talent when it comes to defining the exact image to project. Harbuck said that community has had a number of different taglines during the years. The longest running one was “gem capitol of the world,” a play off of the large number of gem mining operations in Macon County. Macon County also has used “Mountain treasures, simple pleasures.”

“We don’t have any scientific ways of coming up with them,” Harbuck said. “A lot of things have just come from us sitting around the table talking.”

That’s been true in Maggie Valley, too, said Teresa Smith, executive director of the chamber of commerce there.

“We’ve used several recently,” she said. “We are trying to play off the park and being in the great outdoors.”

Maggie Valley uses a marketing committee to come up with choices. During the past several years, the town has used “Maggie’s calling.” Last year, they used “Far enough away yet close enough to play.” This year, it was tweaked to “Can you come out and play?”

Smith said it is indeed difficult to come up with taglines that make all those involved happy. Maggie Valley tourism leaders hold several meetings a year to do just that, usually working around a theme to help define the image Maggie Valley wants to project.

Jackson County recently has scaled down its slogan to focus on a single image it wants to project: mountains. The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce recently has been just using “N.C. Mountains.” It has also used “Mountain lovers love Jackson County” during the past few years, and previously used “A change of altitude,” said Julie Spiro, executive director of the chamber of commerce.

 

Brand vs. tagline

Betty Huskins, a longtime marketing expert with Ridgetop Associates, makes a clear distinction between brands and taglines. A brand, Huskins said, “is who you are in other people’s minds. A lot of people feel they’ve developed a brand when they’ve gotten a slogan or tagline, but you can’t just choose that.”

You can’t, in other words, choose the perception people have of you simply by picking a catchy slogan.

Huskins said ideally in marketing “you have to see who you are and build what you want to be.”

Huskins said the best taglines, as she was taught and still believes, should be no more than three words (think Highlands’ “Above it all.”)

A tagline, she said, should ultimately define “who you are and what you do.”

Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said a tagline has to generate an emotional response.

“You may think it is wonderful, but if people don’t respond to it, it doesn’t do much good,” she said. “If you have a really good slogan they know where you are talking about. It needs to appeal to people on an emotional level.”

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is currently using “See yourself in the Smokies.” The previously used tagline, “where the sun rises on the Smokies,” is still used too on logos, Collins said.

A few years ago, Haywood County made the tagline switch to “See yourself in the Smokies” on advertising to try to get prospective visitors to picture themselves doing such activities as skiing or hiking.

“We did it to get people to put themselves in that photo and imagine doing those activities,” Collins said. “It’s just another format of using the Smokies and to evoke that emotional response.”

Like Huskins, Collins makes a distinction between branding and taglines. Haywood County’s brand, she said, “is our natural scenic beauty.” The slogan is to try to get people to come and participate in that great scenic beauty in Haywood County.

 

Current slogans:

Bryson City: My Bryson City is ___

Canton: Where the mountains kiss the sky

Cashiers: Nature’s design for enjoyment

Cherokee: Meet me in the Smokies

Franklin: Discover us

Haywood County: See yourself in the Smokies

Highlands: Above it all

Maggie Valley: Can you come out and play?

Macon County: Enjoy the beauty, discover the life

 

Facebook-submitted slogans, courtesy of our readers

asdasdfasddf

Sylva radio station owner offers up personal real estate to land county loan

The $289,000 loan from Jackson County to the new owner of Sylva radio station WRGC has finally gotten the green light, meaning the popular local station could be back on the air early next week.

“I think everything is in place to move forward with this,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners earlier this week.

WRGC went dead last August, a victim of dwindling advertising dollars in a souring economy. Sylva resident Roy Burnette hoped to buy the station and get it back on the air, but lacked the money or financing to do so.

540 Broadcasting Co., the business formed by Burnette, sought an economic development loan of $289,000 from the county. The deal has been in the works for months. Although commissioners OK’d the economic development loan in theory, it got hung up on issues of collateral. It was unclear what assets Burnette would put on the table to guarantee the loan.

Proper collateral, allowing the county to recoup its money should Burnette fail to make payments, is a touchy issue. The county’s track record for economic development loans has not been great in the past — finding itself in possession of the questionable collateral from underground fiber optic lines to 500 sewing machines — and it is trying to be a tad more judicious these days, explaining the hold up on the loan.

The issue of collateralization has now been resolved, County Attorney Jay Coward assured commissioners. Burnette will put up personal real estate “worth in excess of $175,000.” Additionally, an inventory of the radio station’s equipment shows that it, too, is worth in excess of $175,000, Coward said.

Of the total $289,000 loan, Burnette needed $250,000 to purchase the actual radio license from Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. Some $39,000 was designated for acquiring the equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. Burnette is providing $100,000 in his own dollars for working capital.

Burnette plans to expand the radio station’s reach, previously limited to Sylva, from Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County, which in theory also would expand advertising-revenue possibilities and make the station financially feasible.

Metrostat situation gets murkier as leaders hunt for silver lining

The fallout from Metrostat Communication’s going belly up keeps getting more complicated, with Jackson County commissioners learning this week that an Asheville company owns some of the defunct company’s fiber optic line.

Metrostat, a high-speed Internet and phone service company in Sylva, went under late last year still owing about $500,000 in outstanding economic development loans to Jackson County and town of Sylva. The county and town took possession of the fiber optic lines and other Metrostat assets, including a tower, which had been put down as collateral. But not, as leaders thought, all of the fiber optic line.

“Things continue to just pop up,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

It turns out ERC Broadband, a nonprofit, owns 12 of the 48 strands making up some of Metrostat’s fiber optic lines in Sylva along U.S. 23 and N.C. 107. ERC bought some of Metrostat’s fiber lines in 2006 for $147,000. ERC Broadband was a grant-funded initiative dating to the late 1990s to run a high-speed Internet backbone through rural mountain counties. ERC acted as Metrostat’s provider to link its own fiber lines to the greater Internet world, Wooten explained.

Jackson County and Sylva initially wanted to simply sell the entire system, fiber optic cable, the tower and other Metrostat equipment, to a single buyer at the highest price possible. Problem is, no buyers emerged — Frontier Communications Co. said it wasn’t interested, and then BalsamWest FiberNET made an offer then withdrew the proposal.

The only possibility left was Cashiers Chalet Inn owner George Ware, who wanted only the tower on Kings Mountain, which once beamed out high-speed wireless Internet service, so that he could provide Internet to his guests. But, the county doesn’t want to sell Metrostat’s system piecemeal.

So the county and town have been left searching for Plan B. Use Metrostat’s assets as the base to provide all of Jackson County with wireless Internet service. The dream includes linking the various emergency towers across the county to provide this blanket coverage.

The county manager said that means there could be an advantage to ERC Broadband’s sudden appearance in the what-to-do-with-Mestrostat game: the focus of the nonprofit is to further economic development in Western North Carolina, which could fit like a hand in Jackson County’s wireless Internet glove.

ERC Broadband could bring the technical expertise to the table Jackson County needs to try and use Metrostat’s infrastructure to provide countywide wireless Internet, Wooten said. A meeting between county officials and company representatives is scheduled for Friday.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever get our money back, but we may end up with something that is an asset to this community,” Wooten said.

Shopping for a high-speed fiber network to call your own?

Selling off a high-speed internet system of fiber optic lines in Sylva that belonged to the now-defunct Metrostat Communications is coming up short.

The 10-year-old company provided Sylva high-speed Internet and phone service until going under late last year. Metrostat had about $250,000 in outstanding economic development loans with Jackson County and town of Sylva.

Metrostat had put up its fiber optic lines as collateral. The county and town are in process of selling off those fiber lines — but it appears even if they manage to sell them they won’t recoup the full balance owed on the loan. Metrostat’s former system also includes towers that provide high-speed internet service via wireless signals to customers many miles away.

Frontier Communications Co. recently notified Sylva town leaders that the company isn’t interested in making an offer on Metrostat’s network after all. That would appear to leave BalsamWest FiberNET, a joint venture funded by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County businessman Phil Drake, as the most likely buyer of the defunct company’s assets.

BalsamWest has a 300-mile network of fiber optic lines in the far west designed to bring high-speed access not otherwise available in rural, remote counties. While BalsamWest provides a backbone, the cost of building the “last mile” to businesses wanting to hook on to the high-speed lines has proven a hurdle, and as a result the network hasn’t been tapped as well as it could.

Metrostat’s network of fiber through Sylva’s central business district and wireless towers reaching outlying areas could bring solve some of those “last mile” issues and bring new customers to BalsamWest’s table.

Ironically, Metrostat owners Robin and John Kevlin cited BalsamWest’s combination of grant-funded, public-private partnership that enabled the company to run high-speed fiber lines through rural mountain counties as a major reason for Metrostat’s demise. The large-scale nature of the telecom business made it difficult for small start-ups serving only hyper-local areas.

The county was hoping to unload the entire network, which also includes towers to deliver high-speed internet signals wirelessly to customers several miles away, but might reconsider.

“I’ve recommended we sell this entire enterprise rather than break it into components,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told Jackson County commissioners this week. “But, maybe it would be best to break out some parts.”

Cashiers Chalet Inn owner George Ware has asked commissioners to let him lease a tower on Kings Mountain that once beamed out high-speed wireless internet service so he could provide internet to his guests.

Jackson County starts up floundering economic commission in hopes of spurring job growth

Jackson County, two failed attempts to the contrary, looks poised to once again hold hands with the county’s four towns when it comes to crafting a new economic development strategy.

How this will actually look and play out isn’t yet known. Six months were allotted to hammer out the best method of attracting and keeping jobs in this hard-knock economy.

County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam expressed impatience with efforts to date on the issue. He told leaders from Jackson County, Sylva, Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills who gathered Monday night at his behest that time they might have used to undergird the local economy has been frittered away.

“We have everything in place and we need to decide where we want to go for a change instead of where we are going to be led,” Debnam said. “I feel like I’ve wasted my first year in office. I want to look back and say: ‘We got something accomplished.’”

Debnam, who ran and won in 2010 as an unaffiliated candidate, campaigned in part on promised future leadership for job retention and creation.

In name only Jackson County still has an Economic Development Commission. But County Manager Chuck Wooten indicated that it might be time even to change that.

“I try to avoid using E-D-C, it has a bad connotation or bad vibration to many people in this community,” he said. “But we are at a point that we need to decide what our next steps are. Do we wish to activate it, do we wish to activate it in some other form, or do we wish to dissolve it.”

 

The strategy

Jackson County is paying Ridgetop Associates, which is the husband-wife team of David and Betty Huskins, $3,500 a month for six months to help them develop a strategy. The Huskins are primarily known for work in the tourism industry through the regional entity Smoky Mountain Host, but they have extensive experience in local government and economic development issues, too. Betty Huskins is currently at work on N.C. Tomorrow, a state economic development effort by regions that she said would dovetail nicely with Jackson County’s current push into that arena.

Among other duties, the couple has been hired to conduct a county economy assessment, listing what exactly — positive and negative — the county has in terms of economic development potential.

Mayor Jim Wallace of the Village of Forest Hills said he believes that’s critical: “We need a good catalogue of what we’ve got before we can move ahead.”

County Commissioner Doug Cody said that in meetings with BalsamWest FiberNET he’d learned that Jackson County is on par “with the level of Silicon Valley, Atlanta, any major urban network” in terms of connectivity speed.

But, Cody warned, that competitive advantage would last just three to five years before other rural areas in the nation catch up or surpass Jackson County. Bill Gibson of the Southwestern Development Commission went even further, asserting that Jackson County has “the best rural (fiber) backbone in the world,” but noted that the use is limited. “Because what we don’t have is off-ramps to businesses,” Gibson said.

In other words, the network exists for amazing connectivity, but BalsamWest isn’t or can’t make the technology available to everyday business Joes because of the “last mile” challenge — the short but often costly run of fiber from the trunk line to an industry’s front door.

Still, Cody said, the capability is there, and it being there enables Jackson County to look beyond such polluting development dinosaurs as “smokestack industries.”

Time is critical, Commissioner Charles Elders said.

“It’s kind of like a drag race. We’ve got a short time to get there and we’ve got to move through the gears,” he said.

 

The plan

Debnam, typically freewheeling in his comments, urged the county’s two towns — Webster and Forest Hills — that limit commercial development in their zoning laws to get on board the now moving train of economic development.

“We’ve built our little silos when times were good. But times aren’t so good now,” Debnam said, adding that everyone “needs to get off their butts” and start working together on job creation and retention.

“You’ve got to take a good look at what you’re doing to help Jackson County move along,” Debnam said.

Mayor Larry Phillips of Webster verbally supported the economic development efforts, though he did not speak directly to whether his town might consider removing some of its commercial restrictions.

“I think it’s great what we have heard and I’m very excited,” Phillips said. “Let’s get going on this … I just see all kinds of potential for Jackson County.”

Debnam indicated he would meet with the mayors from each of the four towns in coming days. The plan is to develop a five-year strategy to tackle economic development. Wooten indicated the county would likely move toward hiring someone in-house to oversee economic development.

 

Same tune, different verse?

Technically Jackson County has an Economic Development Commission. It exists in name only, however.

About four years ago a joint EDC formed by Jackson County and the four towns imploded amidst bureaucratic turf wars. The director resigned; the board quit meeting; members resigned one by one and replacements by the county and towns weren’t forthcoming.

It actually marked the second EDC meltdown in Jackson. The prior EDC fell apart in 2005 amid controversy and allegations of financial mismanagement.

There’s still money in the pot, though, a total of $425,000, which includes a transfer of $335,000 from the 2005 failed EDC plus money from each entity involved. Jackson County and the four towns were contributing $1 for each resident.

Here’s what each Jackson entity, percentage-wise, has “bought” in terms of equity for their contributions to the EDC pocketbook:

• Jackson County: $382,064.84, or 89.79 percent.

• Dillsboro: $2,850.91, or .67 percent.

• Forest Hills: $4,042.34, or .95 percent.

• Sylva: $29,743.10, or 6.99 percent.

• Webster: $6,808.15 or 1.60 percent.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.