Since the workshop: Region-wide prosperity is collaborative effort in Graham County, NC

graham-county-ncA new regional vision will help Graham County, NC and its neighbors work together to achieve shared goals.

In April 2013, Smart Growth America traveled to Graham County, NC to hold a “Smart Growth 101” workshop for county staff. The workshop was designed to provide an introduction to smart growth development strategies, including ideas about how the county could work with other jurisdictions in the region to achieve its long-term goals.

This past January that work took a big step forward with the release of Opt-In SWNC: The Regional Vision. The report was authored by the Southwestern North Carolina Planning and Economic Development Commission, which represents a seven-county region in southwest North Carolina that includes Graham County.

The Commission conducted more than 300 interviews with community members, from diverse backgrounds and from across the region, to hear what they want the region to be in 20 years. The Commission met with elected officials, business leaders, concerned citizens, health practitioners and officials, environmental groups, and local advocacy groups. The result was a blueprint for regional growth that reflected the diverse priorities of regional residents.

The resulting goals are exciting and ambitious. The region aims to function as a single economic unit—complete with a coordinated economic development strategy—to compete globally, develop and diversify business, create jobs, support agriculture and local food, educate the workforce of the future, and attract and retain young people; to protect and enhance the region’s natural and cultural assets, and make them central to businesses’ decision to locate here; to create vibrant, lived-in downtowns to manage and control the inevitable growth, maintain the small-town and rural character of the region; to connect communities within and outside the region by maintaining and improving existing roads, and diversifying transportation options; and to create a fair and equitable quality of life, with a focus on health and wellness, education, and a rich cultural life. The full report has more details about the region’s plans.

“One of our main goals for The Regional Vision was to make the case that regional prosperity cannot just be the work of one single unit of government or one specific agency,” said Sarah Graham, Director of Planning and Development at the Southwestern Commission. Instead, The Regional Vision describes a process where growth depends upon widespread collaboration between regional businesses, governments, and institutions.

The regional vision isn’t the only thing Graham County is doing to improve its development. In 2014, the Graham Revitalization Economic Action Team (GREAT) broke ground on the Graham County Schools Greenway Project at Robbinsville High School. GREAT is comprised of private business owners, elected officials, county and state employees, public health officials, and community members who are all dedicated to the improvement of Graham County. And as with the Regional Vision project, GREAT hosted public meetings during the planning phase of the Greenway Project to gather feedback about how the project could best serve residents.

“Smart Growth America’s workshop helped reinforce to us the idea that residents want to weigh in on projects like this and make them their own,” said Rick Davis, Director of GREAT. “The diverse group of people and organizations who provided feedback on and supported the Greenways Project is a big part of what made the project so successful.” The Greenway Project is part of GREAT’s larger Robbinsville Pedestrian Connectivity Plan, which seeks to improve pedestrian infrastructure and provide more opportunities for physical activity in Graham County.

Smart Growth America’s free annual technical assistance program, made possible through a five-year Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities, seeks to develop local planning solutions that help communities grow in ways that benefit families and businesses while protecting the environment and preserving a sense of place.

Technical assistance