Biz: Building the perfect beast

Given the astounding growth in Asheville and the surrounding area, it would appear that efforts to spur economic development are proceeding quite nicely, thank you. But according to a new study that’s now nearing completion, those efforts are far from ideal.

To begin with, there are some 30 entities in Asheville and Buncombe County that are involved in some form of economic-development activity, resulting in fragmented resources and duplicated services. That’s one of the preliminary findings of Aligning the Wheels of Economic Development in Greater Asheville; the final report is due in November. Getting those groups to collaborate more effectively on efforts to promote a common vision will be a key factor in maximizing the area’s economic-development potential, the report says.

The $55,000 study, conceived and funded by the Asheville HUB Alliance and Buncombe County, is being conducted by the University of Central Arkansas’ Strategic Growth Institute, assisted by the Washington, D.C.-based International Economic Development Council. Together, these groups are assessing how the multiple economic-development organizations in Asheville and Buncombe County function now and how they could interact more effectively (see “Putting the Pieces Together,” June 18 Xpress).

“All of these groups have set their individual agendas. They all have advisory committees, they all have boards, and they can obviously have more effect if they share in and support each other’s agendas,” HUB Executive Director David Brown said in June.

The consultants recently delivered their preliminary findings to HUB board members. Perhaps the biggest problem hamstringing local economic development, they said, is that no one agency is steering the ship. They recommend appointing the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County as the lead organization tasked with coordinating the visioning, planning and performance monitoring for all local economic-development efforts.

What’s needed, HUB board member Mack Pearsall said at the meeting, is a truly independent Economic Development Coalition. The current EDC, a partnership that includes the city of Asheville, Buncombe County and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, is commonly seen as an arm of the Chamber.

Consultants Robert Pittman and Jennifer Tanner of SGI and Louise Anderson of the IEDC suggested that the Economic Development Coalition be completely revamped and re-named the Greater Asheville Partnership, with a broad-based board representing major program funders, other local economic-development organizations and any other key stakeholders.

But even these major changes would be only the beginning, the consultants said. To make it all work, there needs to be a strategic plan based on a unified economic vision. And a key to that will be devising an array of hard economic data designed both to help the partnership monitor its performance and help nonlocal companies decide whether to move here.

Businesses vetting a new prospective new location typically do their first cut based on such data, Pittman maintained. Factors such as a community’s environmental and cultural attractiveness are considered later. Brown says he is very anxious to establish such data, noting that the HUB itself is deficient in this regard.

“The metrics we’re currently using at HUB are revenue created and jobs created,” he notes. “Their proposals are much more extensive than that.”

EDC Executive Director Ray Denny notes that the study now being finalized is almost exclusively devoted to straight economic development. And while he generally lauds the study recommendations so far, Denny says it’s important not to lose sight of those other factors. In fact, he says, the EDC—which focuses mostly on corporate business recruitment, retention and expansion—is in the midst of a nationwide search for an executive whose job will be to integrate such standard economic-development strategies with efforts to capitalize on the area’s cultural and other assets, with an eye toward making the EDC’s overall approach more holistic.

Denny also says he’s not convinced that the existing economic-development apparatus is as fragmented and uncoordinated as the consultants suggest. Nonetheless, he applauds the effort to make things work better.

“Can we strengthen it? Can we improve it? Absolutely,” he says. “I think, from time to time, we ought to shine a bright light on it and examine ourselves and have an outside set of professionals examine who we are, what we’re doing, and where we think we’re going—and give our community and our stakeholders a real fresh look.”

To download a summary of the preliminary report, go to www.ashevillehub.com.

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