Four years after the economic collapse we’ve dubbed the Great Recession, how is the Western North Carolina economy doing? Mountain BizWorks checked in with some local Chamber of Commerce directors to get their big-picture take on the past year and their predictions for 2013.
Their overall verdict? The recovery may be slow, but we’re heading in the right direction.
Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce
Small businesses continue to struggle with the economic uncertainty, and whenever there’s uncertainty it makes people nervous. But we’re seeing an increase in professional services jobs among medium-sized businesses. And we know that high-growth entrepreneurs need venture capital, so we’re trying to make more investment networks aware of the burgeoning entrepreneurial scene here in Asheville.
As part of our strategic planning process, we had someone come in from the Boomer Project who talked about how folks in the baby boomer generation will be working longer, so it’s important to make a community that’s comfortable for boomers, because that community will be comfortable for everyone. We are also going to see some ethnic shifts, and with more diversity, it’s important that our community is welcoming and cognizant of that shift.
In the coming year, I think we'll get more certainty around the impact of health-care reform and new tax policies on business. Mere certainty — even if the decisions aren't what an individual business owner might want — is going to help the economy because it will make business owners more comfortable in making hiring decisions and capital investment decisions.
Henderson Chamber of Commerce
In the past year, we’ve seen a continuing decline in unemployment. It’s still higher than we’d like it to be, but it seems to slowly be getting better. We also saw some improvement in the real-estate market, and we’re starting to see more retail spending in the community.
We’ve also had some positive news from the manufacturing sector, where the trend for hiring has been a little stronger. Our economic-development folks have made several positive announcements this year. The last one was Blue Ridge Metals — a small expansion with new equipment and a new line of work coming in, which means more jobs and money being invested in a local facility. When you look at manufacturing payroll, it’s rising; when those workers have more money to spend in the community, it trickles to the Main Street stores and everything else.
In the next year, it feels like we’re going to see continued improvement with bumps here and there. We hope the manufacturing gains remain, and that, with more confidence in the economy, there will be a continued rise in spending. Hopefully there will also be some nice surprises in there — catalysts to make things improve more quickly — like [last year’s] Sierra Nevada announcement.
Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce
Tourism is our biggest industry, and we have a big retirement community. We’re also a bedroom community for surrounding counties; many people work outside of the county. So we didn’t get hit [as] hard in the downturn as more metropolitan areas. Tourism was down by only about 5 percent, and it’s back up now. And unemployment is down; a few years ago it was 9 percent, and now it’s around 7 percent, among the lowest in the state.
Today there’s more activity in real estate and construction, with a lot of new building permits and remodeling projects. Construction was a huge growth field here, between 2000 to 2005, when the population went up by 27 percent. So when the housing economy crashed and people couldn’t sell their homes and buy here, new building came to a standstill. This put a lot of our skilled workers, like plumbers and electricians, out of work. These jobs are coming back, but slowly.
In 2011, we had 30 businesses join the Chamber; in 2012 we had 45, which means people are feeling more optimistic so they can start thinking about putting money and time into marketing in 2013. So we hope that everything improves. We know that the future is a little shaky in a lot of areas — the country is divided as far as how things should be run — but basically it comes down to money.
A lot of people are still out of work, so we need to get money into the pockets of employers. I see people come in and say, “I need to do something, I can’t find work.” They’re getting creative, seeing what’s needed, and starting new businesses.
— Mountain BizWorks supports small businesses in Western North Carolina through lending, consulting and training. For more information, visit mountainbizworks.org.
Anna Raddatz is development and communications coordinator at Mountain BizWorks.