Sunday, September 24, 2023

A western N.C. economic developer’s multistate strategy

Erik Brinke has lived most of his life in Murphy, in the far, far southwestern North Carolina county of Cherokee, except for when he was at Chapel Hill. For nearly two decades, he has worked for the Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation, a local power company whose service area straddles the state line. His office is in the town of Young Harris, Ga.

Brinke wears many hats at Blue Ridge EMC – he is running it right now as interim GM —  but one of the most important ones is economic development. Utilities were some of the earliest economic developers because, you know, more business, more meters. His co-op serves 54,000 meters.

Erik Brinke

Brinke caught my eye because he came up with the concept of the Bowl, which includes Clay and Cherokee counties in North Carolina. Towns, Union and Fannin counties in North Georgia.  Polk County in Tennessee on the west side.  The region is ringed by mountains, with a few roads in and out. Lake Chatuge is on the eastern side of the bowl, straddling the state line between Clay and Towns.

This is the region — a six-hour drive from Raleigh — that the 50-year-old Brinke has spent years promoting. He talked about the Bowl to Leadership Chatuge, a group of North Carolinians and Georgians, because he sells a region, and he wants them to think less about county and state lines.

“When I sell the community in terms of economic development prospect activity, I don’t sell little old Clay County, with 11,000 people in it,” he said last week. “Or little old Union County with 24,000 people in it.  Instead, I sell 118,000 people in this same laborshed area, which also is a natural retail market service area and regional trade area.”

“People have to make somewhat of an effort to get out of here,” said Brinke.  “So they just naturally trade, they naturally live, work and play in that Bowl. Some people might call it a bathtub.  I’ve tried to frame it up as a Bowl to get people to understand this.”

“It’s easy to travel from Union County to Clay County to work.  it’s easy to travel from Towns County to Fannin County to work. I live in Cherokee County and work in Towns County.”

Brinke grew up in Hanging Dog, north of Murphy, the seat of Cherokee County. His co-op, besides retailing TVA electricity, is a broadband provider in the region. Brinke has been working for a couple of years to get USDA grant money flowing to install more fiber. He wants the folks like the ones he grew up with in Hanging Dog to have the same high-speed internet as people in Raleigh and Charlotte. When they sent schoolchildren home around the state, rural kids were often at a disadvantage.

One of the conditions of the grant is a community computing center, and the co-op has already worked out a deal with a country store to provide free computers and wi-fi. So even if you don’t have fiber to your house yet, students would be able to go to the store, “get you a Co’ Cola and a pack of nabs and do your homework,” as Brinke put it.

His grandmother, in her 90s, has difficulty seeing. He wants to get her broadband so she can tell Alexa to pay her bills. “I’ve been promising it to her.”

The natural beauty of the region has always been a magnet for tourism, along with the casinos. And lately, real estate has been booming in the Bowl.

Brinke said that typically buyers were from Georgia and Florida. Now, he’s seeing an influx from New Jersey, New York, Illinois, “places in the north that we haven’t seen people.” He thinks that the pandemic and possibly, even, some of the turmoil in cities has folks looking around.

“We were already seeing people flock here, so it didn’t take much more to push it over the edge to ludicrous.”  .

So now it’s like 2006 again in the Bowl.  Everyone is trying to get in on the construction boom, said Brinke. Last November, he asked a lifelong friend to reroof his house. We do mostly new roofs, his friend said, but I’ll do one for you as a favor. “It’s now mid-September and my roof’s still not done.”

So the real estate trade is doing fine. Where Brinke focuses his energy is on recruiting companies to set up plants in the Bowl, to join employers like Snap-on and Moog Components in Murphy and Corrugated Replacements, Advanced Digital Cable and Panel Built across the line in Blairsville, Ga.

The remoteness and terrain makes Brinke’s recruiting job a challenge. Brinke is used to prospects getting out of their cars looking a little shaky. “We let them come in whatever route they want to come in and usually the GPS sends them over one of the mountain passes. I say, OK, you don’t have to get a truck through there. Let me show you the way we would do it.”

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