Western North Carolina looks to harness regional potential

It’s thousands of miles from more recognized hubs of smart growth activity like Seattle and San Francisco, but Western North Carolina has emerged as one of the nation’s leading examples of what is possible when regional planning and economic development strategies find common ground.

Thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, government officials, local citizens and business leaders in the region are taking control of their communities’ future. If recent initiatives meet with the success they promise, an area that was once an afterthought even for many North Carolinians might become a staging ground for new businesses at the forefront of the state’s economy.

“I want my kids and grandkids to have a future here,” said Mark Burrows, Planning and Economic Development Director for Transylvania County. “Even before we knew what sustainability was, this is what we have always wanted…a place where there are jobs and people can walk to work.”

Burrows is one of many local leaders taking part in GroWNC, the new initiative funded through the grant that specifically looks at regional growth in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties while accounting for economic development, place-making and ecological concerns. GroWNC is an outgrowth of Land-of-Sky Regional Council, which seeks to coordinate local efforts into a regional plan and is one of 17 multi-county government-planning organizations in North Carolina.

“We’re looking at how we can make the most of what we have,” said Joe McKinney, executive director of Land-of-Sky and of GrowWNC.

By aligning individual communities’ efforts to make great neighborhoods and to stimulate job creation, McKinney hopes GroWNC can have a greater impact than if the region’s towns and rural areas worked separately. He said each county has unique assets that it brings to the table in terms of economic development potential, and explained that playing into existing strengths while ensuring the long-term livability of Western North Carolina’s diverse communities makes them more attractive to businesses.

As an example, he noted that his home area around Asheville is utilizing its obvious environmental beauty and rugged landscape to transform itself into a hub of outdoor sport and clean energy business activity. More than just promoting the region as a tourist destination that would lend itself to service sector jobs, McKinney also envisions companies in those industry segments making a home for themselves in and around Asheville. That would coincide with the city of Asheville also adopting transit and infill strategies to kickstart economic development and to reinvent itself as one of the country’s most sustainable and walkable downtown communities.

All told, GroWNC’s economic development strategy is best expressed in the organization’s five goals on the subject:

  1. Improved economic competitiveness through reliable and timely access to employment centers, educational opportunities, services and other basic needs by workers as well as expanded business access to markets.
  2. Effective job training programs that are matched to employment needs.
  3. Establishment of partnerships and development of strategies for job creation.
  4. Improved graduation rates and employability of local high school graduates.
  5. Development of a partnership between affordable housing developers and transportation system coordinators and major employment providers.

In viewing access to transit, mixed-use development, walkable downtowns, and environmental and agricultural protection issues as inter-related, McKinney and GroWNC participants are revealing the true potential of smart growth. With every conversation, constituents and local officials take another step toward a more robust Western North Carolina economy, with housing and transportation options near jobs, shops and schools.