Regional Report Western December 2010
New chamber chief seeks more diversity
Asheville has long depended on the beauty of its nearby mountains and forests to lure visitors, provide jobs and occasionally help recruit a business. That reliance on tourism, however, has its perils — for one, an average weekly wage that’s mediocre compared with other metros in the state. Efforts to diversify have had limited success, but Kit Cramer, who started in November as CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, wants to keep trying. “Tourism will always be an important part of Asheville’s economy,” she says. “But a diverse economy is a healthy economy.”
Manufacturing is one possible target, and climate studies and services have become a specialty of Asheville’s. It’s home to the National Climatic Data Center, National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center at UNC Asheville, Renaissance Computing Institute at UNC Asheville, U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station and Air Force Combat Climatology Center. But Cramer, 50, isn’t closing off any options. “It would be unwise for me to have too many specific suggestions too soon. I have ideas, but I told the search committee I’d follow Michael Watkin’s advice in his book The First 90 Days and just listen for at least the first 30 days. It’s really important to start by getting in there and talking to everyone, all the stakeholders.”
She spent the past year and a half as president of the Washington, D.C.-based International Downtown Association, focusing on promoting economic development and livability in downtowns worldwide. Before that, she worked 17 years at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce in a variety of management positions. As a vice president of economic development, she recruited new business and advocated for existing companies. She also served as a group vice president for education, focusing on public policy and development of the local workforce. “Her broad chamber of commerce experience, from public relations to education, economic development to issues affecting downtowns, will permit her to see Asheville from a wealth of different viewpoints,” says Benjamin Teague, senior vice president of the Asheville Chamber and executive director of the Buncombe County Economic Development Coalition.
Industry, and whatever pollution it might bring, often coexists uneasily with tourism, especially in places such as western North Carolina, so heavily dependent on its natural beauty. But Cramer doesn’t see an inherent contradiction between having a strong tourism industry and successfully pursuing economic development. “You use the assets you have, and Asheville has huge assets in what makes it a travel destination — scenic beauty, great climate, the arts. I find all those things hugely attractive. Other people do, too, and we’re going to find those people — the ones who just happen to be making business-relocation decisions.”