BizWeek highlights young entrepreneurs

Highland Aerial Park was named the 2019 Up & Coming Business at the Annual Bizweek Banquet held at Bloemsma Barn this past Thursday. Pictured (L-R) are  EDC Chair Johnny Mira-Knippel; EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed; and representing Highlands Aerial Park are CEO Kurt Damron, Lisa Damron, and owners Karen Powell and George Powell. Photo by Betsey Gooder

Abraham Mahshie _ Contributing Writer

A crowd of predominantly youthful business leaders assembled in Bloemsma Barn, situated in a scenic valley in Cartoogechaye last Thursday for a networking reception and buffet dinner to honor start-ups and staples of the community as part of the Economic Development Commission’s BizWeek events.

“It helps build synergy and excitement,” said Tommy Jenkins, Macon County Economic Development Commission director, speaking of the event that began in 2012. “Young people that are in small business now are the future of our economy, and we are seeing more and more small businesses start up.” 

Jenkins said entrepreneurs in Franklin have to want to live here, and the successful ones have been particularly adept at finding a niche or doing something their competition is not doing well.

BizWeek 2019 honorees included Dale West, who served the business community for years as head of the Macon County Employment Security Commission; Highlands’ Ugly Dog Public House, for its unique dining experience since the 1980s; and WFSC/WNCC Radio, Franklin’s first radio station, on the air since 1957.

Nominees for the 2019 Up & Coming Business Award included winner Highlands Aerial Park, Fox Mercantile, Lazy Hiker Brewing Company, Motor Company Grill and Stay Nantahala. Each was presented to attendees in short, well-produced video vignettes with their owners or lead employees explaining the business model, motivation and pride in doing business in Macon County.

Any local company with 3-10 years in existence could be nominated, and the county’s Certified Entrepreneurial Community (CEC) Board voted on the finalists and winners.

Highlands Aerial Park CEO Kurt Damron said it was a single-minded commitment to customer service that helped make his zip lining and outdoor adventure park the #3 outdoors activity in the state of North Carolina, according to TripAdvisor.

“Treat each and every guest or customer like they were a lifelong friend,” said Damron, 40, who ran a chain of paint and body shops with his father and brother in Valdosta, Ga. before he had ever ridden a zip line.

Out of a job after selling the chain, his wife overheard a conversation about a job opening for a zip line guide at the park. 

Damron remembers his excitement when she told him of the opportunity.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this sounds like something right up my alley,’” he said. After just a year and a half of guiding, Damron was made CEO.

The BizWeek awards reception attracted about 150 people and cost the county $4,000, with an additional $2,000 in donations. 

Motor Company Grill’s Tim Crabtree has been in business for five years, growing and even establishing a Franklin New Year’s tradition with his 7’ x 7’ Ruby Drop, which now takes place on town square in Franklin.

“It’s always a joy to be nominated for something – we are excited,” said Crabtree, who also catered the event and finds it valuable for the economic data presented, insight from speakers and networking opportunities. 

Nick Potts, owner of Fox Mercantile, said he was “blown away” to be included in the list of successful, young Franklin businesses.

“If you can find a reason to start a business, Franklin’s a good place to start,” said the native Maconian. “You have a loyal community who is willing to support you, and they would rather support you than a business online.”

Potts said the fact that his business is a traditional brick-and-mortar seller of boots, outdoors wear and leather goods does not make him noncompetitive with the rapidly growing online marketplace. 

“What made me think I could compete with them is to become one of them,” said Potts, whose products are on major platforms including Amazon and eBay.

Commissioner Karl Gillespie said the presence of young entrepreneurs encourages more to move to the area or take the risks necessary to start their own business.

“The more you have, it creates an environment where you will have more,” he said of entrepreneurs drawing other entrepreneurs. “It takes somebody who’s willing to roll the dice and take the chance.”

The elephant in the barn

EDC chairman Johnny Mira-Knippel of TekTone Sound & Signal told attendees that the county has seen rapid growth in the last six years. Unemployment has dropped from 9.1 percent to 4 percent, taxable sales are up from $391 million to $525 million, with an additional $30 million in tourism revenue and new jobs in the tech sector.

“It’s really this room that’s making a change and making a difference for Macon County,” he said, before addressing the metaphorical elephant in the room last Thursday. 

It was the issue neither the entrepreneurs and elected leaders nor key note speaker, Principal Chief Richard Sneed of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI), mentioned by name. But it was the issue all referred to when they boasted about the development opportunities afforded by partnership with the tribe.

“We are really excited about the opportunities to revitalize a section of town that can really become the main entrance into the Town of Franklin,” Mira-Knippel said, after praising the collaboration of the Town of Franklin, Macon County, the nonprofit organization known as the Nikwasi Initiative and the Eastern Band for working together on plans to revitalize the Indian mound area.

The friendly business crowd welcomed the tribal leader, and the potential for economic development of East Franklin that would come along with the public gesture to add the Nikwasi Initiative to the town’s deed of the historic Indian mound, if a May 6 town council vote is successful.

The Eastern Band has already promised a future museum and revitalization of the eastern gateway to town with its purchase of the adjacent building, the former Dan’s Auto Parts, for $400,000 in 2017. The tribe recently approved a $90,000 feasibility study to determine whether the building can be used, or if a new building should be constructed in its place for a planned annex to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

In introducing Principal Chief Sneed, Outdoor 76 owner Cory McCall said success in Western North Carolina comes from shared values of working together.

“Franklin and Macon County are already beneficiaries of that relationship through the tribe’s investments in Cowee and the Town of Franklin,” he said. “We not only honor our shared history, but we strengthen the social and economic health of our communities.”

Chief Sneed stopped by the mound on his way to the banquet Thursday. It was a short stop, pulling off Nikwasi Lane and stepping out of his white Chevy Tahoe in boots, jeans and an open-collared shirt with a leather necklace with a Cherokee shell carving and sport coat. He walked to the edge of the grass and reflected on his childhood memory of the place and of its meaning to the town today.

“I always think about how it got here and how amazing that is,” he said, as cars scuttled by on either side, and no one paid much attention to the mound or the chief who stopped to admire it. “I’m grateful to those kids who actually raised the money – saved a bunch of pennies – that’s a wonderful story. I love it, I love those kids. If you think about it, those children and their schoolteacher were visionaries, so now it’s here for everybody to enjoy.”

Before the crowd of assembled business owners and elected officials, Chief Sneed told a shared story of historic hardship and poverty in Western North Carolina, and the tenacity of theirs and his ancestors, who persevered and thrived.

Chief Sneed reminded listeners that Cherokee, like Franklin, has also long-depended on tourism and that meant some businesses shuttering for five months a year. 

“I don’t think I have to tell anyone here– who’s lived in the mountains for any length of time– that life’s been difficult here for generations” he said. “Mountain folks always have a long tradition of working together.”

The chief underscored the regional benefit of the Harrah’s casinos as a factor in the stabilization of the area’s unemployment rate, and he proposed that the spirit of being good neighbors that sustained our forefathers is the key to future success.

“We must understand that as we collaborate with one another, not only do individual towns and counties benefit, but the region as a whole will benefit,” he said. “I think that Western North Carolina has a stellar future ahead. I believe that Western North Carolina is in good hands because I’m in a room full of visionaries and leaders and people of action.”