Ben Teague, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County, predicts a bright future for the local economy.
He joined hundreds of other government and business leaders June 19 at the group’s annual meeting to celebrate recent successes and plot a path forward. The organization is a year and half ahead of schedule on achieving the target of its Asheville 5×5 plan to bring 5,000 well-paying jobs to the area: It met that mark this spring. Since July 2010, the EDC’s efforts have resulted in 5,334 jobs, which pay more, overall, than the county average of $35,784 a year.
The growth in jobs came despite numerous challenges, such as Asheville’s small size and difficulties competing with bigger cities across the globe for the attention of large corporations, said Teague. “We are punching well above our weight class,” he said.
Asheville: Local Inspiration, Global Innovation from EDC Asheville on Vimeo. The EDC released this video June 19 to highlight a range of local companies that are distributing innovative products that impact people across the country and world.
In 2010, Buncombe’s unemployment rate was nearly 10 percent, and now it’s less than half of that. Since then, companies such as Linamar, GE Aviation, BorgWarner and New Belgium Brewing Co. have either invested, or are in the process of investing, more than $855 million into the area, said Teague. That surpasses the 5×5 plan’s goal of attracting $500 million. “In Asheville, things are bright,” he said, although more work needs to be done to build off of that progress. “Growing a community is like riding a bike: You’re either moving forward or you’re falling off,” Teague told meeting attendees.
The Coalition currently has 19 new expansion projects in the works. If those come to fruition, the deals will result in 923 new jobs and $318 million in investment, Teague revealed.
The metrics of the Coalition’s website also seem to point toward strong interest in the area, he reported. Helped in part by a search engine optimization effort, the Coalition’s website is near the top of the Google page when searching for important terms such as “business relocation,” he noted. That’s helped result in a 82 percent increase in new visitor traffic over last year, he said.
“That is big for us. We’re drawing quality traffic. … Our website is our front window to how we get projects,” he explained.
New & Growing Companies in Asheville – Buncombe County from EDC Asheville on Vimeo. The EDC produced this video to highlight its work in cultivating 10 local business expansions in the past 18 months, adding 550 new jobs and $262 million of investment to the Asheville area.
But while praising the EDC’s work luring large companies to expand, Paul Szurek, Coalition board chair and chief financial officer at Biltmore Farms, said the group needs to do more to facilitate the growth of small locally owned businesses. “We haven’t been as successful as we would like in the entrepreneurial space,” he said.
Although the Asheville area has an incredible amount of entrepreneurs, many of their endeavors are small, only employing a handful of people, he said. Szurek used the example of the growing number of food trucks to make his point, saying, “They are great,” but added that many of them have limited growth potential.
He celebrated the area’s fast-growing beer industry as a model that should be applied to other sectors of the economy. “Thanks to innovators like [Highland Brewing Co. Founder] Oscar Wong, we’ve created a critical mass of brewing activity. … That’s an example of the type of critical mass we need to cultivate,” he said.
To “cultivate high growth companies,” the Coalition hired Josh Dorfman in April to be its new director of entrepreneurial development, said Szurek. Dorfman will present his plan on July 31. He brings a wealth of business experience with sustainability-minded companies to the position. He’s best known nationally as the “Lazy Environmentalist,” a brand he built into a book series, daily radio show on SiriusXM and reality television series on the Sundance Channel.
The Coalition is a public-private partnership, with roughly half its funding coming from local governments and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, and the rest coming from a long list of private companies. The 5×5 plan was funded with roughly $3 million from such organizations. The EDC will draft its next major development plan next spring and will launch a corresponding fundraising campaign.
Meanwhile, Teague shared one of the main lessons he’s learned over the years working in economic development: “Nobody’s going to do this for us. No one’s going to shove investment down our throat,” he said. “The Asheville story is something we have to tell everyday.”