Friday, June 21, 2024

Opinion: Boomtowns at coast, mountains have much in common


By Mark Washburn

North Carolina has spawned a surprising variety of cities that match one another nicely — except for their contrary personalities.

There’s Charlotte and Raleigh, the behemoths that drive the state’s roaring growth but otherwise ignore each other. Durham and neighboring Chapel Hill mirror a focus on education and health care but are bitterly divided by basketball. Winston-Salem and nearby Greensboro share an airport and climate but don’t specialize in cooperation.

Often overlooked are the siblings separated by 275 linear miles and 2,100 feet of elevation. Bohemian Asheville and salt-air Wilmington, the metro bookends of Interstate 40, have plenty in common.

Both have a certain charm that is not lavished on their far-flung cousins. Both managed to hold onto their historic districts that possess beguiling architecture. It was the 1980 census that recorded the last population dip in each city. Since then, they have grown steadily as the provincial capitals of their regions.

Both are magnets for tourism, with the industry accounting for about 15% of the employment in each city. Both attract wealthy retirees — drawn to civic amenities, health care centers and plentiful fairways.

Asheville Both have state university system campuses. And both are expected to maintain their economic vitality.

They excel in another trait, too: A surprisingly high cost of living. Both rival Charlotte and Raleigh as the state’s most expensive locales, according to the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Community and Economic Research.

Paradise clearly doesn’t come cheap. But on the flip side, your labor might. Private industry hourly wages in both cities are below statewide and national averages, according to the N.C. Division of Employment Security.

For Asheville, success has been particularly costly in terms of housing. Its median-home cost of about $280,000 tops that of Charlotte and Raleigh and is more than 20% greater than Wilmington, which is near the national average of $227,000.

You can see it at rush hour. On weekdays, Asheville’s population swells by 49% with workers commuting from neighboring counties where housing is more affordable. It leads the state in the percentage of workers commuting from other places.

The low unemployment rate works against Asheville. Employers struggle to find service employees because they are priced out of the city. At a Business North Carolina round table hosted by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Esther Manheimer had a telling example. When the law firm she works for tried to recruit young attorneys, some went elsewhere because they couldn’t find affordable child care.

“That is one of the collateral effects of having such a low unemployment rate,” she said. “Those workers are not necessarily wanting to become child care providers.”

Author Wiley Cash has a foot planted in each city: He lives in Wilmington with his wife and two young daughters but works as a writer-in-residence at UNC Asheville. Both are welcoming, unstressed cities, he says.

“Asheville is less weird than it has ever been, but has an economy based on weirdness,” Cash says. “People take things slower. They want a slow cocktail, slow music, slow dinner, craft beer made on-site, [and] food from local sources.”

In Wilmington, “local residents find [themselves] moving toward a slower pace of living in culture, food [and] beer. Wilmington is a great theater town, too, but tourists aren’t coming to do that.”

Asheville’s high cost of living is its biggest challenge, Cash says. The city’s artisans are being squeezed out by the very people who can afford to buy their art. “Asheville’s next big hurdle,” Cash says, “is how do we make downtown affordable to live in?”

You can reach Mark Washburn at mwashburn76@

For 40 years, sharing the stories of North Carolina's dynamic business community.

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