Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

The Southwestern Commission recently launched MountainWest Partnership, an economic development marketing initiative that aims to tell the true story of what it’s like to live and work in the seven far western counties of North Carolina.

“It is a partnership between the economic development entities in the region, working together to provide the resources and assistance that businesses need to start, expand, or relocate a business in the region,” said Sarah Thompson, executive director of the Southwestern Commission.

MountainWest uses the power of economic development directors in the region by Cherokee, Haywood, Clay, Jackson, Graham, Swain, Macon counties and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians all joining forces and sharing resources available through the Southwestern Commission.

“It is more difficult to draw attention to one rural county than an entire region,” said Thompson. “Regions across the U.S. are branded according to the unique characteristics that the counties within them share, such as workforce, transportation infrastructure, educational institutions, geography, and lifestyle characteristics. Once drawn to a region, an individual or company can work with the partnership to find the specific location that best suits their needs.”

Thompson said in WNC, standing out and relying on the unique opportunities in the western part of the state is the focal point for economic development in WNC.

“Most every county in N.C. has empty industrial sites to market to potential businesses, so in order to stand out and be noticed, we must emphasize what is most unique and special to our region,” said Thompson. “Besides being within a couple hundred miles of the southeastern U.S.’s major population centers, we also live in one of the most beautiful, natural resource rich areas of the Southeast – which is why we highlight the region’s natural beauty and small town lifestyle in the video series.”

What Economic Development Looks like Across WNC

While MountainWest Partnership brings economic development in the region together, individually, each county within the partnership has a considerably different approach to economic development.

All seven counties and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Economic Development Directors were surveyed and four counties, Cherokee, Clay, Jackson, Haywood, and Macon County participated in the survey. Graham County Economic Development Director Sophia Paulos declined to comment, and Graham County’s manager did not return a request for comment. Swain County Economic Development Director Ken Mills also did not respond, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians noted that as a Sovereign Nation they did not have to abide by the same public information requests as other agencies and their projects and operations were private.

The average Economic Development Director’s (EDD) salary for the five counties who participated in the survey is $85,908.20. The salary range of the economic development director in the region varies widely with Clay County on the low end at $30,000 and Haywood County far exceeding the others, with the EDD earning a salary of $223,000. Cherokee County ranked second lowest with $40,000, followed by Macon County at $61,200 and Jackson County at $75,351.

Cherokee and Clay County

Paul Worley has overseen Cherokee County’s Economic Development needs for the last 13 years. In both Cherokee and Clay County, economic development is a partnership with Tri County Community College. While the respective counties pay the salaries of the “directors,” the directors have all the available resources and are housed at Tri County Community College.

“Our EDD position is a collaboration with Tri County Community College, and it is the same in Clay County,” said Worley. “We are contracted with the Board of Commissioners, but have all the resources and staff available through the economic development department at the college, such as the small business center.”

Aaron Patton serves as the EDD in Clay County. While Patton has served as the director in Clay for the last two and half years, six months ago Clay County joined Cherokee County in partnering with Tri County Community College for economic Development.

According to Worley, for both Cherokee and Clay County, the greatest accomplishments in the county over the last five years has been focusing on infrastructure investments to grow the manufacturing base. Patton noted that the construction of Clay County’s Industrial Park has really benefited the county’s economic development and has allowed regional businesses such as Franklin’s Drake Enterprise to expand there.

For Cherokee, Worley said one of the most significant investments in the last year comes in the development of the Cherokee Casino, which opened last year.

“Just as important as recruiting new business and industry, as an economic development director, one of my greatest responsibility is ensuring that existing businesses have the tools and resources they need to remain here,” said Worley. “Whether that be job training through the college, or investing in infrastructure a business needs to expand and operate, I am constantly working on a daily basis with companies who are already doing business here to make sure they have what they need to keep doing business here.”

Worley said that Cherokee’s Economic Development department works with local businesses to conduct pre-hire assessments to make sure businesses hire the right type of employees and help with the hiring process to make it easier for businesses, both new and existing. The pre-hire assessments is just one of the resources both Clay and Cherokee provide from the economic development department.

Patton said that in Clay County, they often work on RFI and RFP’s for local businesses to help ease that workload.

Economic Incentives provided by Clay and Cherokee are available for new and growing businesses through the county and are based on each individual business’s request. Worley said that incentives are given based on a company’s capital investment in the county and its anticipated job creation. Depending on the number of jobs they create and how much they plan to invest in the community, the county may waive property taxes for a number of years. They also provide workforce training through the community college that businesses are encouraged to utilize.

Haywood County

Mark Clasby has served as the Economic Development Director in Haywood County since 1985 when it was a county department. Since July 2014, Haywood County shifted its economic development program and it now falls under the umbrella of the chamber of commerce.

Like Clay and Cherokee, Haywood County provides economic incentives for new businesses based on the capital investment and job creation that a business proposes in Haywood County.

According to Clasby, over the last five years, the county’s accomplishments are many and include the completion of the ConMet expansion; Sunburst Trout Farm expanding its operation; Evergreen Packaging invested $50 million in natural gas boilers; Sunoco Plastics expanded its building; Imperial Hotel in Canton was refurbished into a top notch restaurant; Southern Porch, Regional Livestock Market in Canton was built; West Carolina Freightliner located in Canton; Preferred Pumps located in Canton; and Chick-fil-A opened its westernmost store.

“Everyday in economic development is a new day,” said Clasby. “You never know what exciting thing will happen; from potential new projects, to serving as a point of contact and resource and assisting people with their questions and reaching solutions.”

Clasby touts MountainWest Partnership as an avenue to increase the rural county’s reach. “A regional approach in economic development is essential,” said Clasby. “Potential companies or businesses looking for a new location look to a region where they are doing business.  Whether it’s the Southeast or some other region. Our workforce is willing to travel a reasonable distance to work. Therefore, working together is beneficial in attracting businesses.”

Jackson County

Jackson County’s Economic Development Director Rich Price, has served in the position since Nov. 1, 2013. Prior to Price, Jackson County’s EDD position was vacant for several years.

Jackson County passed an incentive consideration program in 2015, which essentially allows the governing body to contemplate appropriate investment in economic projects provided that specific return is evident.

Unlike the other counties surveyed, Jackson County provides the director with a budget in addition to the position salary and any incentives that may be given to businesses.

“The total fiscal year budget for Economic Development, inclusive of salaries and benefits was just over $130,000 for this fiscal year,” said Price. “However that does not account for funds that are available for economic assistance through our revolving loan fund, or any fund balance that may be available to be used at the discretion of the governing board.”

The accomplishments attributed to Jackson’s economic development efforts over the last few years are also many and include: Development and passing of legislation regarding consideration for Economic Incentives; Small Business/Entrepreneurship facilitation, resulting in the establishment of multiple new businesses and the creation of more than 35 new jobs; successfully partnering with Pepsi Cola Bottling to identify a site for a new 70,000-plus sq. ft. distribution center retaining over 40 jobs for Jackson County; successful negotiation for an outdoor river park and adventure attraction near Dillsboro (pending final approval by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners) that creates numerous jobs  and is estimated to infuse millions of dollars annually into Jackson County through increased visitation and overnight stays; partnering with a local entrepreneur Sky Fi Wireless for exploring opportunities to improve true high-speed broadband access to both unserved and underserved areas of Jackson County.

According to Price, on a day-to-day basis, he focuses on five key areas for economic improvement, including:

·         Business Development and Recruitment

·         Business Retention and Expansion

·         Infrastructure improvements

·         Workforce Development

·         Marketing

“The daily interaction with various agency and organizational leaders, as well as local and prospective business partners, to continue developing the foundation for new business and new residents for Jackson County is the norm,” said Price. “That schedule or agenda changes daily.”

Price is also excited about the regional approach to economic development and believes that the opportunity will benefit each county differently, based on their priorities.

“Each county in the MountainWest region will have some specific Economic Development Agenda, and those initiatives will vary from county to county depending upon identified needs,” said Price. “Yet most of those efforts will, in some way, revolve around new job creation and capital investment as the cornerstone of their respective economic development strategic plans. Yet those who may be seeking a new location for a business, large or small, may rarely recognize the boundaries for county lines or even municipalities, preferring instead to look at the assets and resources of a particular area or region as opposed to only one town or county.

“One has to look no further than successful regional initiatives such as the Research Triangle Park, the Charlotte Area Regional Partnership, or even the Carolina West partnership immediately to our east to see the benefit of regional collaboration. And it is reasonable to assume that the same regional approach will have positive impact in not only more urban areas, but in rural areas like the Mountain West region as well. The approach allows us to market the assets of the region in a manner that promotes the entire area as a wonderful place to build or grow a business, and to enjoy a very high quality of ‘place.’ An economic win such as a new manufacturer for Macon County, is also a win for Jackson County and surrounding areas.The same is true for any of our participating counties in the MountainWest partnership. We can also benefit by leveraging the region to look for funding and additional resources that could be the result of a truly demonstrated collaborative effort, as opposed to each county fighting those battles on their own.”

Macon County 

Tommy Jenkins’ contract was approved in November 2011 and is approved on an annual basis to serve as the county’s Economic Development Director. Like the other counties surveyed, Macon County has the ability to provide economic incentives to potential businesses at the discretion of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

“As EDC director, I work daily to promote and facilitate business and industry investment, innovative entrepreneurship and quality job creation,” Jenkins said of his day-to-day duties.

Over the last five years, Jenkins has worked to create the annual BizWeek event which promotes networking, business development and honors young entrepreneurs and established businesses who have operated in the county for years. Jenkins has also helped in the TekTone expansion as well as recruiting Franklin Tubular to take over when the Whitley plant announced it would be closing.

“Economic development knows no geographical boundaries,” Jenkins said of the regional effort. “As a region, we share common educational, workforce, infrastructure and natural assets. A regional approach offers the opportunity to build a stronger and more collaborative economic ecosystem proving more beneficial to business/industry retention, recruitment and start up efforts.”