Hello Bellagio, meet Cherokee

The Mirage has a volcano. There’s the Fountains of Bellagio, and the pyramid-shaped Luxor.

Cherokee will have the Rotunda, the crown jewel of the $633 million expansion to be unveiled next year and serve as the new casino entrance.

“With any casino, the notion of a grand arrival is key to create a sense of excitement,” said Erik Sneed, the tribe’s construction manager over the project. “You want a huge sensomatic, volumetric experience.”

And that’s exactly what Cherokee will have.

rotundaShining five-story trees made of colored glass, like giant Tiffany lamps, ring the Rotunda with a 75-foot waterfall cascading down the middle. A 140-foot screen wraps around the walls where choreographed shows will be projected in concert with visual manipulation of the lighting in the trees and waterfall, along with intense audio effects.

“The lights will go down, you hear thunder rumble, suddenly the trees glow an intense red, the screen comes on, the music start and the show plays,” Sneed described.

One of 15 shows will play on an hourly schedule.

A massive, floating, spiral staircase winds through the trees and wraps around the waterfall. The self-supporting staircase was designed without columns underneath.

“We wanted the effect of a staircase that looked like it was suspended in thin air,” Sneed said.

But it also took an engineering feat to float with 50 tons of twisted steel.

“The only place that could roll steel that big was in Canada. We had to buy the steel, have it fabricated, shipped to Canada and then back to Cherokee,” Sneed said.

Men at work: Behind the veil of Harrah’s $633 million expansion

As Harrah’s Cherokee Casino closes on the final year of a massive $633 million expansion, the hum of construction that’s been a backdrop to life in Cherokee will give way to a luxury resort positioning the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for unparalleled economic dominance in the region.

“It is unlike anything else that has ever been attempted,” said Erik Sneed, the tribe’s construction oversight manager for the expansion. “You’ve seen projects like this in Vegas or Atlantic City. Rarely have you ever seen it in Indian Country.”

The project had 1,100 construction workers at its peak and 43 architects and interior designers.

Anecdotes depicting the sheer size of the project are limitless. Sneed traveled to Korea to negotiate directly with Samsung for televisions. Nothing quite says purchasing power like an order for 800, 42-inch flat screens.

The expansion was a monumental attempt to change the face of Cherokee’s casino into a resort destination and draw a new demographic of gamer.

It was pursued at great cost, and perhaps risk. It’s the largest construction project in the Southeast, no small feat in recession times. But the tribe simply could not continue to sit on its laurels, said Darold Londo, general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee.

“There were people who were happy with what they had, the whole ‘one in the hand worth two in the bush thing,’” Londo said. “We don’t have that luxury because our customers play elsewhere. They go to all the other gaming markets in the country. There is an incentive to keep pace with them.”

rotunda_constructionWhen the expansion is finished next year, the casino will have pulled off a five-year construction project while remaining one of the most profitable Harrah’s casino properties in the nation.

“My boss never wanted to hear construction used as an excuse. He said ‘Don’t tell me your revenues are off or your services scores are down because you’re building something new. I just don't want to hear it,’” Londo said.

Londo’s boss at corporate headquarters wasn’t the only one unwilling to give the Cherokee casino a pass on making revenue goals while in the throes of construction.

There were 13,900 other people — the enrolled members of the Eastern Band — counting on profits holding steady. Casino profits flowing to the tribe hovered around $225 million the past two years, with half funding tribal programs and the other half paid out directly to the Cherokee people in the form of twice-annual checks.

The tribe relies on casino money for many of its services, from subsidizing the hospital and the school system to native language programs for children. Families rely on their individual cut to make car payments, buy medicine and put their kids through college.

“One of the primary goals was to not affect the tribe’s distribution,” Sneed said.

The expansion won’t only double the number of games to a total of 4,600, but includes a complete renovation of the existing gaming floor.

The biggest challenge: maintain players’ experience and never, ever, go off line. Keeping the casino’s 3.6 million annual guests isolated from the construction zone around them was a feat in itself. False walls created a bubble around the operable areas of the casino while hundreds of construction workers toiled just on the other side.

“I call it the ticking dominoes,” Sneed said. “We’re cascading through a construction sequence.”

Matt Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, has been a doting spectator of the expansion.

“It has been impressive just to watch it,” Pegg said. “One day you walk around the corner and there is a big wall. The next day they have taken that wall away and there are 500 more machines or a food court.”

One work-around to keep the casino running amidst the construction — quite literally — stemmed from the unfortunate location of the main electrical room. It sat smack dab in the middle of the old motor coach lounge, destined for demolition to make way for an upscale steak house.

Contractors ruled out moving the main electrical room, which houses all the power panels that run the casino. Instead, they decided to demolish the building around it. Crews couldn’t mess up. Knock out the casino’s electrical power, and the lost revenue per minute was unthinkable.

“They were nervous as cats,” Sneed said of the demo crews.

Electrical crews couldn’t exactly kill the power either when it came time to move or add circuits, so specialized teams donning full-body rubber suits and helmets to work with the high-voltage live circuits.

While the guests are oblivious to the construction zone surrounding them, it’s hard to miss once you’re back-of-house.

Drill-slinging construction workers clad in blue jeans and work boots, tool belts clanging about their waists, scurry up and down the employee corridors. Drafting tables, spilling over with blueprints, are tucked into every corner of the hallways. The noise of saws and sledgehammers, somehow imperceptible on the gaming floor, is pervasive.

Even in the administrative wing, hardhats are never far from reach, looped over coat racks and stowed on bookshelves behind nearly everyone’s desk.


Taskmaster of great proportions

On a construction tour of the casino last week, Sneed made a stop over in the new 600-seat buffet, stepping around paint buckets and drop cloths, dodging men on ladders and weaving through a mine field of flying sawdust from table saws.

He excitedly started talking about the grand opening of the buffet just two weeks away without a hint of hesitation or flicker of doubt. It would all come together quite quickly, he said, not at all bothered that the flooring still wasn’t down, dining room tables were no where in sight, let alone finishing touches like napkin dispensers.

“We haven’t delivered anything late so far,” Sneed said.

Execution of the construction project was critical, and the tribe wasn’t leaving it to chance. True to form, the tribe once again proved its capacity for foresight by hiring two of its own contractor liaisons. Their job: ride herd on the construction crews, make punch lists, double check work against blueprints, even scout for the best pricing on interior fixtures.

Harrah’s corporate, with a lot riding on the expansion as well, sent two of its own experts in construction oversight.

“Because of the size and the scale, we wanted to make sure the interest of the tribe was represented in the performance of the work,” Sneed said.

There were 50 to 60 subcontractors working on the job at any given time. Sneed set up shop smack in the middle of the contractor’s encampment, a field of 20 trailers across the street from the casino that served as the central nervous system of the expansion.

As Sneed strolled through the buffet still under construction last week, he pointed to newly installed light fixtures that were the wrong kind and need replacing.

“We saw those and thought, ‘Those don’t blend very well with the architecture. Is that right?’” Sneed said. “So we had to go back and compare it to the drawings.”

The tribe switched contractors part way into the project, parting ways with the crew initially hired for the job over what Sneed referred to as “some mix-ups along the way.” Turner Construction, a century-old company and one of the largest in the country, was brought on. It was a good move, Sneed said.

“You are hiring that company because of their resources, but also their credibility. They have a reputation to protect in the industry and so they aren’t going to screw something up and leave it,” Sneed said.


A maze of construction

Most people would need a road map, if not a handheld GPS, to find their way through the maze of construction corridors and work zones, accessed to those in the know by slipping behind black curtains or ducking through the many “no-entry” doors pocking false walls on the gaming floor.

“It’s confusing. You could easily get lost on this project,” Sneed said.

But not Sneed. He knows the project like the back of his hand, a three-dimensional map of the blueprints seared into his mind.

For the directionally challenged, the casino has maps for hotel guests. Navigating the gaming floors, eateries and retail concourse is tricky enough without adding in the complexity of trekking there from one of the hotel towers and back.

But to steer the majority of guests, way-finding signs are mounted overhead, designed by an expert in such signage brought in a consultant.

“When you have a building this size, you have to make sure way finding is clear cut,” said Sneed. “It is so enormous, people have to understand clearly how to get out of this building in case something ever happened.”

At regular intervals on the casino floor, there are large interactive signboards, akin to a digital version of a shopping mall key, for resort guests to find what they are looking for and how to get there.

Getting lost isn’t the only problem. Getting around is too, especially for the older population of gamblers who make up the large part of Harrah’s customer base. They don’t have the mobility to make long treks.

“If you’re staying in hotel tower one and your favorite game is in Mountain Breeze, you are going to walk about a mile,” Sneed said. “It is a challenge.”

The solution: layover points to stop and rest and visually pleasing elements along the way.

“We designed it with a sense of journey so that as people make their way through, you have this or that to catch your eye and look at,” Sneed said.

It might be a group of sofas by a fireplace, artwork inlayed into the tile floor or balconies overlooking the gaming floor. A collection of sky bridges means players never have to go outdoors.

Londo said the casino is breaking industry norms with the lounging areas. For years, consumer psychology experts preached against places to loiter, warning that it is best to keep people on their feet browsing and shopping.

But Darold Londo, Harrah’s Cherokee general manager didn’t subscribe to that school. The casino was just too big for older guests not to stop and rest.

“It’s a haul for anybody, but if you are challenged getting around ...” Londo said.

Londo also cited insight from his current bedside reading, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. The author’s studies of consumer habits found lounging areas are not, in fact, detrimental to sales.

In coming weeks, the casino plans to deploy a fleet of golf carts to shuttle people back and forth to the hotel towers similar to those used in an airport. It also rents electric scooters.


Going vertical

Harrah’s hotel towers are the only structures west of Asheville in the state that are equipped with seismograph detectors. Hemmed in by mountains on a landlocked reservation, Cherokee had little choice but to build up.

“We shoehorned it all in,” Sneed said. “We couldn’t take a horizontal site and expand out. We had to think vertical.”

It’s obvious from the outside — with the soaring hotel towers and parking decks. But it also influenced the basic layout inside. A giant 600-seat buffet overlooks the gaming floor from a mezzanine, while a large 3,000-seat concert venue sits above it on the second floor. The stacked layout called for dozens of elevators and escalators.

The site limitations came at a price.

“We spent millions developing the site to accommodate an expansion this large,” Sneed said. “We went through literally months of blasting everyday getting through solid rock.”

Ultimately, construction called for nine retaining walls, including a 75-foot “soil nail” wall, the largest in the South. There was $1 million on a dewatering system for the parking garage. Another $2 million for federal stream mitigation to work around a creek that courses through the middle of the sprawling casino property.

Site work was the only portion of the construction that faced delays or cost overruns, a nasty side-effect when dealing in the unknowns of what lies below ground.

The project, once finished, will undoubtedly be a towering symbol of the tribe’s progress, a fitting monument to how a once persecuted people have bootstrapped themselves into the single largest player in the region’s economy through foresight and vision.

“It is going to attract an entirely different clientele. This isn’t just a daytrip casino any more,” Sneed said. “There’s a legacy in this also. We want to build something the community is proud of.”

Canton to see long-awaited sewer upgrade near I-40

Canton will be opening its doors to new business when a long-awaited upgrade to its Champion Drive sewer line is completed next year.

The update, which town officials say has been on the list of top priorities for several years, will cost $1.2 million and should take a little more than a year to complete.

Town Manager Al Matthews said that the current system is already overtaxed, and that’s preventing potential new businesses to set up shop in the corridor that runs from Interstate 40 into downtown Canton along Champion Drive.

“The line is drastically undersized for the new growth and development along Champion Drive,” said Matthews. “It [the upgrade] is a fairly broad-reaching economic development tool as well as meeting those needs that are in existence now.”

According to Matthews, the current line is at such capacity right now that even existing businesses in the area are unable to expand and maintain sewer service.

Once the larger line is in place, however, it will serve the new livestock market and provide capacity for both business expansion and new businesses alike.

The crux of the problem, said Matthews, is an over-extension of the line’s original intent. For example, the portion that serves the multitude of businesses between Sagebrush Steakhouse and Arby’s was only originally intended to serve the steak restaurant. But when Canton saw explosive growth along the road, the sewer capacity didn’t expand along with it.

Now, with the birth of a new urgent care center on the road imminent, appropriate sewage capabilities are urgently needed.

As Matthews said, the concept has been bandied about for some time, with the idea being that larger, big-box stores may look to Canton – almost equidistant between Waynesville and Asheville – as the prime location to draw shoppers from the outskirts of both cities. The industrial park that is also tied onto the line is another prime candidate for expansion and additional business creation.

Now, said Matthews, the area will once again have the trifecta necessary for new building of any kind – open real estate, water services and sewer capabilities.

Funding will be coming from several different sources, including a $100,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation and a $600,000 grant from the N.C. Rural Center. Matthews said the county has agreed to pay a share of the costs, though to what extent is as yet unclear.

County Commissioner Kevin Ensley expressed support for the project, deeming it beneficial for the whole of the county in terms of economic growth and development.

“When a sewer line goes in, then business will follow,” said Ensley.

Work on the improvements is slated to begin within months, said Matthews, who hopes to have a permit for the construction in hand within 60 days.

Economic development that works for the region

A couple of stories we’ve covered in the last two weeks illustrate better than any data the new face of economic development here in the mountains. Community coordinators paid with tax dollars can help small businesses grow in our post-manufacturing economy.

Joey Bolado, the owner and chef at Grandview Lodge in Waynesville, would like to serve only fresh, local foods on his menu, everything from produce to meat. In today’s marketplace it just doesn’t work, despite his desires.

“Right now, I feel like I have to go out and find it,” Bolado said of the local produce. “They’re not coming to us.”

The Buy Haywood initiative, which is funded by the state’s Golden LEAF Foundation, promotes Haywood’s farms. It has helped market value-added products like salsa, jams and sauces made from local agricultural operations and has produced a map so locals and tourists alike can find farms and farmer’s markets that sell produce.

Now, it is working to connect local restaurants and chefs — like Bolado — to local growers. The new program is called 20-20-20, because its goal is to connect 20 local growers with 20 chefs who will use 20 different products.

The problems for the farmers and chefs are obvious, says Buy Haywood Coordinator George Ivey. Growers need to be in the fields rather than on the phone marketing, so they are much more likely to look for one or two large buyers rather than 20 small ones who only want a few products. Restaurant owners and chefs need convenience and variety, which doesn’t always fit with the production constraints of local growers.

The 20-20-20 project is trying to overcome these obstacles. It will succeed only if both parties can profit from the transaction. It also will take a change of mindset, a realization that there is value in making the local-to-local economy more robust.

Ivey’s efforts are similar to those of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which is a sort of regional version of Buy Haywood that promotes farm products from the southern mountain region.

“People mistakenly assume that just because someone has a product and somebody else wants a product, that’s a match,” said Peter Marks, ASAP’s program director. “There are so many other factors, like the ripeness, the uniqueness, the packaging.”

Ivey, Marks and others won’t solve this problem tomorrow, but I have not doubt that this is the future. As the locavore — someone who only eats foods grown locally — movement grows, more people will pay a few cents extra for fresh produce grown by their neighbors a few coves over. This is dovetailing with efforts to create local economies that support businesses down the street instead of across the globe.


Another partnership was also in the news last week, one that brought Gov. Beverly Perdue to Waynesville and other parts of Western North Carolina. A project that would transform Main Street’s Strand Theater into a restaurant, brewery and entertainment venue got a $300,000 state grant, and it drew a crowd into the Arts Council’s Gallery 86 to hear Perdue discuss efforts to promote jobs in the state’s small downtowns.

Getting that grant required a lot of behind-the-scenes work, and that is what’s worth noting here. Downtown Waynesville Association Executive Director Buffy Messer knows what is going on in the downtown business district, and she knew Richard Miller was looking for a way to jumpstart his vision for the Strand.

She also realized that these Main Street Solutions grants were a good fit, and that time was running out to apply. Messer worked closely with Miller to put the pieces together to get the state grant

“I give her all the credit for bringing this to our attention,” said Miller.

Like Ivey’s work with the local growers and chefs, Messer’s work with small businessmen like Miller is exactly the kind of economic development that will help Haywood and other mountain counties thrive in the future.

Using state grant money — essentially our money — in this manner is certainly more appealing than awarding a multi-million dollar tax break to some huge corporation that could care less about this region. Right now just about all Southern states are way too deep into this game of trying to lure the Googles and the Toyotas of the world through tax breaks that are, to be frank, obscene. Meanwhile, the local factory or small business that’s been around for decades just keeps busting butt to hang on. That scenario always leaves a disgusting taste in my mouth.

Our mountain region is unique for many reasons, but its enduring spirit of independence may be what keeps it strong during the next several decades. This area was living the “buy local” movement before it had a name. We have a good mix of businesses that are helped by a steady flow of newcomers and visitors. It’s a good mix for a strong economy that doesn’t need to sell its soul to some huge manufacturer.

New economic development coordinator learns the ropes

Trevor Dalton, Macon County’s first paid economic development coordinator, is back on his home turf.

Dalton, 24, grew up in Macon County, and majored in business administration at Appalachian State. He worked in the Wilmington, N.C., area in the insurance industry and at a software firm for the past two years. He got his feet wet in the computer industry during high school working in software support for Drake and later for TekTone, a Drake subsidiary that makes intercom and call systems.

Drake, a tax software company that employs more than 325 people, is the largest single driver of Macon’s economy. Dalton’s knowledge of the field likely helped land the job.

In addition, Dalton’s father owns Dalton Construction, further scoring points since the construction industry is another major player in Macon’s economy.

Economic development consultant James McCoy, who is the chief visionary behind the county’s new economic development plan, is grooming Dalton for the job. Given McCoy’s expertise, the economic development board merely needed a coordinator who could implement the strategy McCoy was creating.

“The first day I walked in I had a 90-day plan,” Dalton said. “It said this is what you will do the first month this is what you will do the second month and this is what you will do the third month. I know exactly what I am doing tomorrow.”

Dalton doesn’t harbor vestiges of the old economic development paradigm. His counterparts in years gone by would spend their days courting big manufacturing industries to set up shop in their county, luring them with the promise of free land and tax incentives if they would roll in and provide jobs. But Dalton has internalized the new model that took his older counterparts much longer to come to terms with.

There are two major shifts in focus. One is nurturing small companies just as you would big ones.

“Manufacturing is gone. To create the jobs you have to have the small five, 10, and 15 person companies,” Dalton said.

The other is paying attention to the jobs you already have, he said.

Scenic beauty, yes, but what about things to do?

By Andre A. Rodriguez • Special to the Smoky Mountain News

A new travel study revealed potential visitors lack awareness about activities and attractions in Cherokee and the surrounding region, detering them from planning a visit.

“People don’t have a very good understanding of Western North Carolina and the things to see or do here,” said Rob Bell, interim executive director for the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. “They’re aware of the scenic beauty and not aware of the activities.”

The study was aimed at increasing the effectiveness of tourism marketing on the Qualla Boundary and the seven counties of the Smoky Mountain Host region — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Clay, Cherokee and Graham.

“We wanted to understand why people aren’t coming and if they had come what they liked and what they didn’t like,” said Bell. “What kind of things would motivate (visitors) to come?”

The study was commissioned by the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and Smoky Mountain Host and funded by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Travel and Promotion, Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, Western Carolina University and the Goss Agency were also partners in the study.

The Marketing Workshop out of Norcross, Ga., based the study on 600 online interviews with adults who have inquired about the North Carolina Smoky Mountains within the past four years, online interviews with 600 residents within a 300 mile radius outside Western North Carolina who may or may not have visited the area, and 50 telephone interviews with Cherokee Chamber members whose businesses deal with tourists.

The study concluded Cherokee needed to improve the quality of dining options, nightlife and variety of things to do on the Qualla Boundary. Families are looking for more family-friendly activities, and adults desire more nightlife and other activities besides Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

One of the things that stuck out for Bell — aside from the soft economy — was there were so many other places people wanted to visit. For example, they were looking for a vacation at the beach rather than one in the mountains.

Cherokee and the rest of the Smoky Mountain Host area would also benefit from improved perceptions of value for the money, which would have a significant impact on travelers the region seeks to draw, the study concluded. Most of visitors to the region are couples over the age of 55, according to the study, but the region seeks to draw more families with children.

Providing visitors and prospective visitors with sample itineraries and more education about activities in the area, along with package deals or a discount pass for the region, would help motivate more people to visit.

Bell said his organization is already at work on one of the study’s recommendations, which was to provide visitors and prospective visitors with sample itineraries.

“There’s a great hunger for sample itineraries,” Bell said. “We started preparing some that will soon go up on our Web site (www.blueridgeheritage.com).

“One thing that popped out to me with the study findings is people are planning their travel on a much shorter time frame. A lot of folks don’t have time to wait for material in the mail. They’re doing planning on the Internet and hopping in their cars and heading out that weekend or the next weekend. We need to be smarter about how we get the information out there about attractions and lodgings,” Bell said.

People are also interested in finding a good deal, such as area discount passes. The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area offers visitors the Go Blue Ridge card, which provides admission to up to 30 area attractions for two-, three- or five-day increments, including the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Oconaluftee Indian Village and performances of Unto these Hills.

Bell anticipates more attractions will get on board with the Go Blue Ridge program.

The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area is also in the process of rebuilding its destination-marketing Web site.

“We’re taking the study findings to heart,” he said. “People want to know that there’s a variety of things to do in the area. The Web site makes it easier to access that information.”

Susan Jenkins, executive director of Cherokee Preservation Foundation, said she was encouraged by the study.

“Cherokee Preservation Foundation is pleased to have supported research that identifies opportunities to increase family visitation by providing more family activities and then making the presence of such activities known. The foundation has sponsored previous research about heritage tourism efforts undertaken by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and we are committed to helping the members of the tribe market Cherokee and continuously improve what the Qualla Boundary has to offer visitors,” Jenkins said.

Jackson County offers incentives to land new manufacturing jobs

Jackson County leaders are considering an economic development incentive that will provide property tax credits to Stonewall Packaging in exchange for a minimum $10 million investment in a new facility in Sylva and creation of at least 40 full-time jobs by 2010.

The new hires must make a salary of at least $39,000 per year, which is well above the county average of $27,820.

The county would provide grants of $32,500 per new job with a cap of $1.3 million. The grants would come out of property taxes Stonewall pays to the county, which would then be returned to the company. Jackson County officials who support the measure insisted on Monday that it will not be a handout.

“Jackson County decided not to do a cash outlay from our coffers,” said Commissioner Tom Massie. “This essentially doesn’t cost us anything. Without the jobs being created, we wouldn’t have gained anything at all. We’re simply providing a financial incentive.”

But Carl Iobst of Jackson County Citizens Action Group is far from convinced.

“Why is a private corporation that seems to be doing pretty good...why are they coming to the county with their hands out?” said Iobst. “They’ve been in business for a while. It seems like they could find some funding.”

Stonewall Packaging, a joint venture of Jackson Paper Manufacturing, is planning a 200,000-square-foot addition to its current corrugated cardboard plant in downtown Sylva. Jackson Paper has said that it will exceed the county’s requirements by creating 61 new jobs and investing more than $16 million. It will also receive a $200,000 grant from a state economic development incentive program.

County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland said he believed emphatically that the financial incentive would be good for the community.

“Obviously in this day and time, any new jobs are very attractive,” he said.

The county says it has worked closely with experts in formulating an exact contract for the deal.

“Everything’s in writing. There’s nothing left to chance, nothing left to speculation,” Westmoreland said.

Jackson County will accept written comments from the public about their opinions on the plan for the next two weeks before it comes to a vote.

Workers will come if we create jobs, great lifestyle

When Macon County economic development officials met last week and decided the aging workforce was among the county’s most pressing problems, that was news to our ears. An aging population — and workforce — presents many challenges, but we don’t think employers need worry about finding workers to fill the few professional jobs that are available in this region.

The worry, according to officials, is that the aging workforce and subsequent retirees will require more services. OK, that much is a given. As folks retire, many do require social services and other government aid while not contributing taxes — in the form of payroll taxes — to pay for them.

But in many ways, this fear is a straw man argument. If good jobs are available, professionals and service sector employees will flock to the area to take them. This newspaper, in fact, advertised over the last couple of months for a job requiring a college degree that paid a modest salary. We were inundated with prospective employees, with resumes arriving from Washington, Arizona, New Hampshire and all points in between.

When a reporter for this newspaper went into a restaurant to interview some 33-year-old workers in Macon County, they agreed with this assessment - if jobs are available, people of their generation are used to relocating to find work. It’s the norm these days.

These young family men pointed out a more important truth that economic development officials should concern themselves with — making sure Macon County and Franklin are desirable places to live. They pointed out that amenities like restaurants and other places to socialize are important. They bemoaned the fact that a recreation bond failed, meaning there will be fewer places for their children and them — young families today are active — to go play. They stressed the importance of continuing to focus resources on downtown development.

Yes, the population is aging. We are all living longer and working longer. But Macon County and the rest of this region will benefit more from that demographic reality than they will suffer.

If we want workers when we need them, we just need to make sure we protect open spaces, invest enough so our downtowns remain vibrant and walkable, and invest in education and recreation. As long as our quality of life remains high, people will come to fill the open positions.

Macon hires point man in new push for economic development

Macon County has hired a full-time economic development coordinator, finally joining the ranks of most counties who employ paid directors tasked with growing jobs and recruiting businesses.

Trevor Dalton, 24, has no economic development experience or training — but the county’s economic development board says that’s just what they were looking for. The Economic Development Commission wanted a young upstart who could be molded and instilled with Macon’s business vision, rather than someone predisposed to an off-the-shelf strategy from elsewhere.

Dalton has gotten a good introduction to the business community in Macon County in his first two months on the job. He jumped into the middle of an on-going strategic planning process that landed him in face-to-face interviews with more than 80 stakeholders in the county, from town and county leaders to major business owners.

“We wanted to go out and get their opinions on where they see Macon’s economy going,” Dalton said.

The input will help shape a new economic development strategy as opposed to the county’s more passive approach to economic development in past years.

Unfortunately, Dalton discovered during his meetings with current business leaders that some don’t feel appreciated.

“We want them to feel welcome in Macon County,” Dalton said.

Others that participated in stakeholder interviews heard the same concern.

“The entities here now are not sure they have government support,” said Macon County Commissioner Jim Davis. “I think we need to put that on the priority list to fix and have a protocol so that doesn’t have the opportunity to rear its head. The first thing we need to do is preserve what we’ve got.”

Part of the problem has been the lack of a go-to person to periodically call on existing companies, since the county relied solely on a volunteer board and had no paid staff.

“A major part of my job is going to be working with our businesses to retain the jobs we currently have in Macon County,” Dalton said.

Ed Shatley, the chairman of the EDC and retired insurance man, said a paid economic development director seemed unnecessary until recently. Macon has always enjoyed relative prosperity in the job market compared to its neighbors, with unemployment often hovering below 4 percent.

“So why did we really need one?” Shatley said of an EDC director.

But when the recession hit, Macon’s unemployment rate reached 13 percent — suddenly worse off job-wise than some of its neighbors. Shatley theorized that Macon’s economy was too dependent on development and real estate.

“It became obvious in the last recession that a high percentage of our jobs were in the construction industry,” Shatley said.

James McCoy, a consultant hired to overhaul the county’s economic development strategy, said adding a paid staff person was a critical move.

“You need someone who gets up every day and thinks about nothing but the future economic health of this community,” McCoy said. “That is something every single community deserves.”

Others involved in the county’s economic development work agree.

“Now we actually have some boots on the ground to carry out some of the ideas we think might work,” said Franklin Mayor Joe Collins.

Mark West, vice-chairman of Macon’s EDC and a former county commissioner, helped push for the hiring of a paid economic development coordinator. Without one, the county wasn’t doing justice to economic development, West said last year. The job of recruiting businesses and nurturing existing ones was not effectively being carried out by the volunteers serving on the EDC board, he said.


New strategy

As part of an overhaul to the county’s economic development strategy, the EDC board was reorganized and expanded to 12 members. County commissioners appoint board members and the board functions as a county department.

McCoy was brought on to steer the process in March 2009.

The new EDC strategy has created four committees within the board to focus on target areas: recruiting new businesses, supporting existing ones, nurturing entrepreneurs and retail development.

McCoy recently gave a presentation on the new economic development strategy to elected leaders in the county. McCoy spent most of the presentation highlighting what a great place Macon County is. McCoy talked about the county’s assets: good hospitals, good schools, good quality of life, diverse employment, sense of place, community pride and geographically well-positioned.

“We are in good shape I am proud to say,” McCoy said.

He also shared labor and demographic statistics for the county.

Macon Commissioner Brian McClellan asked McCoy if a more specific strategy would be forthcoming.

“Could we expect some concrete suggestions as to what specifically we can do to further the process?” McClellan asked. “I would be more than willing to listen if you had some concrete ideas of A, B, C for ways we can help move everything forward.”

McCoy said those suggestions would be coming down the pipe in the next few months.

In Macon County’s dream world, it would become a hub of technology development companies. While theoretically far-fetched for a largely rural Appalachian region, Macon County’s proximity to Atlanta and the presence of a major software firm already, Drake Software, makes it plausible. Drake’s main tax software enterprise and several technology and computer subsidiaries under its domain has singled-handedly positioned Macon County to tout itself as a high-tech hotbed in the mountains.

Counties need full-time economic development director

There’s not a one-size-fits-all model for how counties should promote economic development, but at the very least there should be one skilled specialist on the county’s payroll whose sole responsibility is to promote job growth and help existing business. Put the right person in that position and it will pay for itself many times over.

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