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North Carolina’s mountain counties have always been popular with tourists. Infrastructure improvements, community development and better career opportunities are making them appealing to more full-time residents and businesses.
Western North Carolina’s picturesque mountain vistas and abundant outdoor and cultural attractions bring plenty of visitors. They didn’t shy away during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when most of the travel and tourism industry ground to a halt because of stay-at-home orders. Clay, Polk, and Yancey counties, for example, saw 14%, 9% and 16% increases in 2020 visitor spending from the year prior, respectively, according to N.C. Department of Commerce. And visitor spending in Buncombe County, which is home to the region’s largest city, Asheville, held steady. Industry experts say the region’s open spaces, which allowed socially distanced recreation, pushed the performance.
But the state’s westernmost counties and Qualla Boundary — Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ reservation — are proving attractive in other ways. Nestled among the Blue Ridge range of the Appalachian Mountains, they’re home to more and more year-round residents, higher education, manufacturing and health care jobs, and entrepreneurs. “We don’t have to vacation here,” says Brittany Brady, president and CEO of Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development. “We work here. There are amenities that people are paying for hotels to come here and see. And you see a positive migration. They find they can actually live here. To keep Henderson County first, we want to make sure we have a healthy tax base in economic development. We’re creating jobs that may not be a quantity number but a quality number.”
Asheville-based Biltmore Farms, founded in 1897 by George Vanderbilt, has an expansive portfolio of housing communities; business, retail and mixed-use properties; and hotels. It works to create sustainable communities through developing education, health care, arts and culture, and environmental and quality of life. “There are a lot of special places in the country that are urban, and there are a lot of mountain areas, but having urbanity in the mountains is really unique,” says Biltmore Farms Vice President of Strategic Development Ben Teague. “It balances the sophistication of the cities and the serenity of nature. There’s a lot to be said for having nature and innovation together, and that’s what I think western North Carolina is.”
Teague was among 60 people selected for the seventh-annual class of Presidential Leadership Scholars. The career professionals attend monthly leadership sessions and meet with former presidents. “The caliber of people from all across the country is incredible,” Teague said in March. “It’s a life-changing experience. Like last week, I was with Bill Clinton, and in a couple weeks we’ll be with George W. Bush. It’s not political. It’s about leadership and good people who agree on a lot of things and how we craft that for the future.”
Through PLS sessions, participants gain knowledge, which they apply toward visions for their communities. “I think innovation and nature are symbiotic,” Teague says. “And that’s what the economic development has been, companies looking for talent and people looking
for careers in a place they’re attracted to. And in western North Carolina, it’s our job to help them see how they can be professionally successful and personally successful.”
Henderson County Partnership’s 2020 target market analysis identified businesses that would grow best in the region’s economic climate. “We went through … and found areas we could thrive in are health care, biotech companies, food and beverage — we’re the No. 1 apple producer in the state — and machinery, which supports the manufacturing in the region,” Brady says. “Also, professional services that support the manufacturing side, research and development, and the outdoors industry.”
Though regional tourism grew through the pandemic, COVID-19 reshaped lives and outlooks. “One thing we learned during the pandemic is we don’t want to be over reliant on one particular sector, so I think diversification in growth and looking for opportunities to capitalize on new industries is something we’re looking at and our partners are looking at,” says Scottie Parks, impact officer at Dogwood Health Trust, a private foundation improving the health and well-being of the region’s residents and communities. “One is the outdoor industry. In 2020, so many people had nothing to do except get outside, and that’s a benefit for western North Carolina. We had people coming from all over, and, working with local partners, we saw growth in manufacturing for the outdoor industry and entrepreneurship. We know that having a good-paying job is really the key to being a healthy individual and being able to afford to live in a safe environment and have affordable health care. When people have jobs and a good income, it’s helping the economy, and that’s helping all of western North Carolina.”
Aircraft-parts manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, for example, is building a 1 million-square-foot factory in Asheville, investing $650 million and creating 800 jobs. As Buncombe County’s largest economic development project, it’s expected to begin producing turbine airfoils this year. In a show of its commitment to economic development, Biltmore Farms sold 100 acres to Pratt & Whitney for $1. “Given the number of high-paying jobs and capital investment, we believe this project will benefit the families of western North Carolina for generations to come,” says Biltmore Farms President and CEO John “Jack” Cecil.
Dogwood Health Trust was formed in 2019 when HCA Healthcare purchased Asheville-based Mission Health for $1.5 billion. “Dogwood is still relatively new, but our region has a rich tradition of individuals and organizations who are courageous, creative and persistent when it comes to helping their neighbors and communities enjoy healthy, fulfilled lives,” says CEO Susan Mims. “Our work focuses on supporting those organizations that align with our strategic priorities by providing grants or impact investments, making connections and helping them leverage other sources of funding, so they can become even more strategic, innovative and effective.”
Dogwood distributes about $100 million in grants annually, according to its website. It provided $3.7 million in Immediate Opportunities and Needs — ION — grants to 259 western North Carolina organizations in 2020, for example. They help meet myriad needs, including housing, child care, transportation and health care. Infrastructure is addressed, too. “What we’re doing is funding some planning work for broadband [internet] adoption,” Parks says. “We know it’s going to be critically important for our counties, and we know they need a solid plan. So, we’ve partnered with the Institute for Emerging Issues out of N.C. State to fund the planning grants for all 18 counties and the Qualla Boundary.” He says each eventually will receive a $75,000 grant to implement the plan. A recent Appalachian Regional Commission study found 22% of homes in western North Carolina lack broadband access, a deficiency highlighted by remote learning and work during the pandemic.
Western North Carolina is ripe with opportunities, says Sarah Thompson, Dogwood’s vice president of impact — economic opportunity. But as is the case in many parts of Appalachia, they need help harvesting them. “Their needs have been a lot about infrastructure, whether it’s highways or water and sewer or, these days, high-speed internet,” she says. “It’s about the infrastructure needs to have a thriving economy. There are beautiful small towns, where people enjoy living, but the economy doesn’t exist. So, we’re focused largely on filling needs that will remove barriers.”
Teague sees other regional needs. “Biltmore Farms wants people to be able to make the life that they want and are willing to work for,” he says. “We need housing that they can see themselves in when they begin their career, for when they’re at the top of their game and at the end of their career. And we need to be watchful of our childcare needs, because if someone has a great job and can’t find childcare, it doesn’t matter. Early childhood education is so imperative, and Dogwood Health Trust is helping address this for western North Carolina.”
Dogwood commissioned Bowen National Research to quantify the region’s housing needs and supply in 2020. The six-month study examined population trends, income expectations, and supply and affordability for home ownership and rentals. It detailed the hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom rental unit in each county. That amount ranged from $12.90 in Graham, McDowell, Mitchell, Rutherford, Swain, and Yancey counties to $24.13 in Buncombe, Henderson, and Madison counties. According to Asheville-based sustainable economy advocate Just Economics, the 2022 living wage — the minimum needed to meet basic needs — was $17.70 per hour in Buncombe County. It’s $13 in
Bowen’s study identified a housing shortage in western North Carolina. “While some of the need is for market-rate homes, much of our housing shortage falls in the areas of transitional, supportive or affordable housing,” says Sarah Grymes, Dogwood’s vice president of impact — housing. “Dogwood Health Trust is working with our nonprofit housing partners as well as counties and municipalities in our footprint to address these needs. Forming partnerships and leveraging other sources of revenue are going to be key to creating more safe and stable housing.”
Gateway Wellness Foundation helps local governments and nonprofits in Burke, McDowell, Polk and Rutherford counties address community needs. With Dogwood’s backing, it’s building 31 affordable single-family homes in a Ruther-fordton development that also will have 60 multifamily units and an Early Head Start location, which will support families and young children. Gateway will build 26 affordable single-family homes in Marion later this year.
Teague said jobs are important. But residents need careers. “There has to be that ability for someone to get on the career ladder,” he says. “And if the rungs are close enough, they can climb. But when you get on the career ladder and have to leave because you can’t get to the next rung, something’s broken. Pratt & Whitney is an ideal career-ladder employer. The manufacturer will take you out of high school and pay for the skills training all the way up to where you have a six-figure [salary] job. When you can easily see the next rung and make it there, and have that pathway, that’s called economic hope. The average wage [for a machine operator] is $70,000-plus a year. Not only do you have a defined career ladder, but they pay you to move up. Those types of employers are important for our future.”
Gateway President Neil Gurney says his foundation’s housing initiative offers more than roofs over heads. “[It] not only increases the affordable housing stock and the number of low-income, first-time homeowners, but it also increases the number of trained, certified carpenters and project managers to build the affordable homes and bolsters the local economy by sourcing its modular homes from Kituwah Builders, owned and operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” he says.
McDowell Technical Community College’s Construction Trade Skills Academy, which is supported by Dogwood and Gateway, prepares students for general construction, construction project management and modular housing installation. “This very technical aspect of the curriculum is coupled with additional courses on employability skills, communication and interpersonal skills,” Gurney says. “The student is being taught not only how to do the job but how to get the job and how to keep the job.”
Western Carolina University in Cullowhee held its Career Fair PLUS+ in March. It attracted 150 employers, nonprofits and graduate school representatives. “The [Center for Career and Professional Development] works hard to ensure that each student can pursue their individual career goals in the state of North Carolina and, in particular, western North Carolina,” says Rich Price, WCU’s executive director of economic development and regional partnerships. “We introduce students to the surrounding community through employer panels, information sessions, career fairs, mock interview or resume review sessions, and classroom presentations.”
Price says WCU aligns its degree programs with high-growth and high-demand fields that are imperative to the region’s economic success. “My role is to connect WCU to economic development related work and initiatives across western North Carolina,” he says. “Our goal is to make certain that WCU has a seat at the table, whether as an advocate or active participant, in the economic well-being of our region, which is germane to our mission as a regional comprehensive university. We work with economic development practitioners and organizations as a resource in their efforts to attract new business, retain and expand existing business, and to support and grow entrepreneurial endeavors.”
With workforce development initiatives at WCU, UNC Asheville, Appalachian State University in Boone and other higher-education institutions across the region, residents can prepare for well-paying employment that’s close to home. “Our goal is to ensure that students see a meaningful path to working and living in the region, and they are connected to employer partners throughout their educational experience at Western Carolina University,” says Theresa Cruz Paul, director of WCU’s Center for Career and Professional Development.
Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce has been helping college students segue to careers since 2018, when it partnered with WCU, Warren Wilson College, Western North Carolina Human Resources Association, UNC Asheville and others to create NEXT AVL. It’s a mentorship program that pairs college junior and seniors with local professionals for nine months. “Many UNC Asheville students are looking for something a little less traditional, and Asheville is a great place for that,” says Lisa Mann, director of UNC Asheville’s Career Center. “We love to connect students with real professionals who are doing the work they want to do, because networking is the most critical part of any type of job search. Through mentorship programs, like NEXT AVL and our Alumni Mentor Week, we connect students with employers to broaden their horizons, consider options they may never have had before and open doors to opportunity. This is especially critical for students who want to stay in the Asheville metro area.”
UNC Asheville’s Career Center is available to students as early as their freshman year. Mann says the sooner they visit the better. “Our goal is to meet students where they are and help them figure out where they want to go next and how to get there,” she says. “That may be a creative endeavor, entrepreneurial or a more traditional 9-to-5 career. We have more nonprofits and small businesses than any other part of the state. Getting connected with real people makes a difference.”
The State Employees’ Credit Union’s Public Fellows Internship Program began in 2015. It offers grants that help talent remain in the state’s rural communities. UNC Asheville’s most recent grants — $50,000 in 2020 and $100,000 in 2021 — helped 10 and 20 students, respectively, obtain internships in fields such as health care, forest protection and community services such as food banks and crisis centers. The university provides on-campus housing for graduate and undergraduate students interning during the summer.
The SECU Board of Directors expanded the internship program to 15 UNC campuses in January 2021, including Appalachian State and WCU. The $1.5 million in funding will cover costs for 20 interns from each school.
Appalachian State broke ground on its Innovation District in Boone in March. The Conservatory for Biodiversity Education and Research will develop economic opportunities across the region. “[It will] serve as a vital link between the campus and the regional community through education, research and outreach,” according to a university press release.
Dogwood’s Success Coach Partnership with Blue Ridge, Western Piedmont and Asheville-Buncombe Technical community colleges helps students stay on their chosen career track. “[It’s] essentially case workers and counselors for community college students that will ensure that these students have what they need to complete their credentials,” Parks says. “We had a meeting with community college presidents early in 2021 to hear from them about what challenges they face and what we can do. And Success Coach rose to the top of the conversation, so we felt like we could get those three [colleges] funded, and we hope to engage with some of the others.”
Workforce development is a moving target. “We’re watching work-force needs and requirements evolve right now,” Thompson says. “We are largely an Appalachia region that has historically been underinvested, so when we invest in workforce development, we do it with partners who are on the same page.” ■
— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.