The Advantage West Economic Summit took place Nov. 14. Below are notes from the event, based on Twitter dispatches by Margaret Williams.
The panelists were:
* Senator Tom Apodaca, an entrepreneur from Henderson County, serving his fifth term in the NC Senate, representing District 48. Among Sen. Apodaca’s committee assignments include serving as Chair of the NC Senate Rules Committee, Vice-Chair of Commerce, and Vice-Chair of Education/Higher Education.
* Dr. John Bardo, former chancellor of Western Carolina University, who guided WCU through a period of unprecedented growth in student enrollment, campus construction and academic stature during his tenure as Chancellor from 1995 until his retirement this past July.
* Larry Blythe, Vice Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who won re-election in September 2011, having originally been elected in 2003. A lifelong resident of Western North Carolina, Vice Chief Blythe served for a number of years on the Tribal Council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians representing both the Wolfetown as well as the Painttown communities. (Blythe agreed to serve as a panelist after previously announced panelist Darold Londo encountered an unexpected schedule conflict.)
* Senator Martin Nesbitt, an attorney from Buncombe County representing District 49, serving his fourth term in the Senate after 11 terms in the House. Sen. Nesbitt played a major role in the creation of AdvantageWest in 1994 by the NC General Assembly and is the current Minority Leader of the NC Senate.
* DG Martin, newspaper columnist, radio personality and UNC-TV host is back by popular demand to serve as moderator of the panel discussion.
Familiar faces here: Karen Cragnolin, K. Ray Bailey. Other notables on hand: UNCA Chancellor Anne Ponder, Sen. Nesbitt, Rep. Patsy Keever, RL Clark, Steve Metcalf, and lots of elected officials from nearby counties. Also here Asheville City Council members Esther Manheimer & Gordon Smith (who is everywhere it seems).
More than 300 at the meeting, says an organizer.
More green energy companies per capita here than anywhere in state, says Matt Raker of AdvantageGreen.
Just met Sen. Apodaca, a panelist tonight. He says he keeps up with the Molton cartoons about him in Xpress.
Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith says events like this are best opportunity for elected officials, business people to meet and talk.
A few more minutes and the panel discussion begins with DG Martin moderating.
Moderator DG Martin: “We’re looking for help” in this economy, particularly public-private partnerships. Martin to Bardo: In your study, what have we learned?
Bardo: Concerning what college degrees do (or do not) do to the economy, incomes, productivity, employment… a higher number of grad students in math, science correlate to stronger economies. … The potential in WNC is high but the state hasn’t made as much investments here (particularly in education) as in the rest of the state.
Question: We need investments, but the General Assembly has limited funds. What can we do?
Nesbitt: WNC doesn’t have the resources the rest of state does, like a major airport, a research university; but we’ve got to invest in what our people do. Like agriculture research, change from tobacco, growth of the Christmas-tree industry. The more we can educate our people, the better it is for our region. Educate people & get them into jobs they want to do; support and build our economy with small businesses.
Apodaca: It was a hard choice to cut the budget but we met with university leaders to see what we could live with; community colleges are most vital to economic recovery; small businesses are the answer; WNC is a great place to live.
Bardo: Look around country: Big business is not hiring; how do we encourage small business? The Triangle can’t be allowed to be rich and everyone else in the state be poor.
DG Martin: But one big biz is hiring: Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee.
ViceChief Blythe teases Martin about “immigrants” bringing skills and jobs to WNC; jokes that Cherokees are getting it back.
ViceChief Blythe: Cherokee is tourism-based; we lost agriculture, timber industry, and so made a choice in 1995 to go with the casino, which employs 2,000. We have a good work force, unemployment rate in nearest counties is less than state average; now we are discussing the live-dealer option. 80% of casino staff are not tribe members; employment is good for the area; 400 jobs would be created with “live dealers”; plus 300 from other associated jobs. The government wants 8.5% of live-dealer revenue; we’re negotiating.
Nesbitt: Appdaca & I are for the live-dealer option. Unemployment was 30-40% in Cherokee area years ago; they have pulled themselves up.
Nesbitt: If you want to see how to turn around one of poorest in areas in the state, go to Cherokee.
Blythe: Casino buys from small businesses, it needs small businesses, tribe helps small businesses grow & survive. We built a broadband loop that helps tribe, children, residents/students, hospitals in surrounding counties.
Martin: How does Cherokee rural broadband help economy?
Bardo: It’s a big deal. Infrastructure is there for tech jobs. It takes time to evolve, like development of small businesses or telecommuters who need broadband.
Martin: But how to get working capital for small businesses?
Nesbitt jokes that Blythe is the only one here with money (in Cherokee). We’re trying to pair small businesses with banks. I don’t know what the fix is. Federal regulators are keeping banks from lending. We need to break this money shortage loose at the federal level. One man said the mortgage rates have hit a record low; another man replied he knew folks who would think that was great if they could get a loan.
Martin says he is looking for good news.
Bardo says state can/should give tax deductions for adding jobs and making investments.
Apodaca: Bankers tell me that demand is down; but there are two problems— consumer confidence is down and uncertainty is up for businesses owners.
The summit is coming to end; Martin asks for panelists summary statements; teases Nesbitt that Martin has never heard Nesbiott take less than two minutes to sum anything up.
Nesbitt: Keep our eyes on the prize; this is a great place to live; unemployment better than rest of state.
Martin says: You did it!
Blythe: Cherokee is good partner with state and the area; I ask Gov. Perdue to work with the tribe.
Bardo: I’m excited about future; we have good values, good people.
Apodaca: Tourism is our bread and butter now and in the future; our best days are ahead.
Summit comes to an end