A crowd of local business people and politicos packed the Diana Wortham Theater Monday night, Nov. 14, for Advantage West’s annual Economic Summit. Billed as “one of the region’s most popular networking events,” the focus of this year’s conference was economic development through public-private partnership.
After a networking reception, broadcaster and columnist DG Martin moderated a four-member panel discussion that began by identifying the economic challenges facing the region.
“For North Carolina, the projections aren’t that good,” said panelist Dr. John Bardo, former chancellor of Western Carolina University. “Our unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country today.”
Bardo went on to cite studies that say the state will lag behind the rest of the nation in economic recovery, but that Western North Carolina in particular may be poised for growth. “The potential in WNC is huge,” he said. “The potential in this area is as good as it is in Charlotte, it’s as good as it is in Raleigh, but the state hasn’t made the investment in this area that it could have, and in my opinion, should. But the opportunities are here.”
Bardo’s fellow panelist N.C. Sen. Martin Nesbitt agreed that the region has to work within its limitations, pointing out that it is not able to offer the economic infrastructure of other regions such as the research triangle. “We build on what we’ve got,” said Nesbitt, citing successes in the state’s community college system. “We’ve got to get our people educated, and get them out into the jobs that pay good, that they want to do, to move this economy forward. It’s that simple. And then, at the end of the day, we live off of small business.”
Nesbitt, an Asheville attorney, met with agreement from another panelist, Henderson County businessman and fellow state Senator Tom Apodaca. “The community colleges are our most vital link into the recovery and to moving forward, and getting the pay scale to where it needs to be in North Carolina, particularly Western North Carolina,” said Apodaca.
Panelist Larry Blythe, vice chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, presented his tribe as a model for public-private relationships in a from-the-ground-up economic recovery. Blythe said that, through the success of Harrah’s Casino, the Cherokee “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” under a compact with former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt. Harrah’s, Blythe said, brings economic stability to a region that had been traditionally dependent upon cyclical tourism. According to Blythe, the casino now employs over 2,000 people. About 80 percent of those employees are not tribe members, he noted, emphasizing the positive economic impact the casino has on the counties and communities near Cherokee.
The tribe’s success story raised a current issue among the panelists: proposed changes to the existing compact between the Eastern Band and the state of North Carolina that would allow the casino to offer live dealers. Blythe said the state has asked for about 8 percent of the new revenues the casino will earn if the changes take place. A counter-offer is currently under consideration.
Nesbitt said that he and his fellow senator Apodaca support the changes, praising the Cherokee for being “perfect stewards” of their success. He says that casino revenue is responsible for building schools and infrastructure that help the entire region, and added that the Eastern Band should be free to move forward. “I’ve been mad ever since I heard we wanted some of the money,” said Nesbitt, juxtaposing the situation with the state’s multi-million dollar offers of incentives to job-creating companies. “Then when the Cherokee show up, [the state] has their hands out. I never quite understood that.”
Apodaca said that he supports the casino’s proposal, too, but that he does see the need for revenue sharing.
Blythe said he is more concerned about jobs than money, pointing out that the proposed expansions would create up to 700 new positions. He emphasized that the relationship with the state has been a good one.
The forum ended with cautious optimism. Panelists agreed that WNC will enjoy good opportunities — if the economic climate ever thaws.
“They’re going to have to break this loose at the federal level,” said Nesbitt. He blamed a weak housing market and federal regulations for the continuing economic trouble. “It’s not a state government function. I’m promising you we’ve got everything in place to help small business.”
For more photos by Max Cooper from the Advantage West Fall 2011 Economic Summit, visit our Flickr page here.