Economic development: A team approach

In the past, the city’s Office of Economic Development has often been at odds with other local organizations that also seek to grow the local economy. But that’s changing, says Sam Powers, Asheville’s economic-development director.

Bringing home the bacon: It takes a lot of groups to grow the area’s economy, and Asheville’s Economic Development Director, Sam Powers, says the city is working to be a greater collaborator in their efforts.

“Economic development is shifting its approach from competition to collaboration,” he reports. In a Feb. 19 report to City Council that highlighted various regional economic-development initiatives, Powers identified a number of local entities that are working in concert to boost the city’s and the region’s economy, noting that the city is actively working with them. They include AdvantageWest, the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, the Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County, CarolinaWest and the HUB Project, among others.

“Weaving successful networks in our civic spaces will loom large in our future efforts to be regionally competitive,” Powers told Council. “Economic development takes place in the civic space outside the four walls of any one organization. One of the key insights that our city staff has developed is an understanding that we need to actively engage and continue to build successful networks and collaborations more effectively to meet city strategic goals.”

And though Powers’ report was largely informational in nature, a subtext of his presentation was that City Council could become a more engaged working partner as well. Powers also took the opportunity to hit up Council for financial help. Among the requests was a letter from Economic Development Coalition Chair Bob Roberts seeking $50,000 to support its efforts to grow a local high-tech industry.

Additionally, David Brown, executive director of the HUB Project, asked Council to consider funding a half-dozen projects, both in the current budget year and the next one (which begins July 1).

For this year, Brown said, HUB is asking for the following:

• $24,250 to a consortium of Asheville arts agencies to produce and distribute a seven-minute promotional video emphasizing the relationship between a vibrant arts community and entrepreneurship. The film, said Brown, would be similar to the HUB-produced Climate Alive video, which proposes leveraging the Asheville-based National Climatic Data Center to boost the area’s nascent climate-data industry (see “About That Climate Change Business …” Nov. 14, 2007 Xpress).

• $15,000 to Handmade in America for marketing the work of the artists featured in the Asheville Design Center.

• $10,000 to the Asheville HATCHfest (www.ashevillehatchfest.org) to help cover labor and equipment costs. A partner to the original HATCHfest in Bozeman, Mont., the Asheville event aims to recruit high-profile mentors to foster the growth of creative minds, the local organizers say. Planned as an annual event, the festival will seek to showcase some of the world’s best creative artists in film, fashion, music, architecture, design, technology, journalism and photography. Beginning in spring 2009, the four-day Asheville HATCHfest is expected to feature film screenings, concerts and exhibits of the work of groundbreaking creative artists from around the world, according to the organizers. HATCH will also present numerous educational panels and labs that will be open to the general public free of charge.

In the 2008-09 fiscal year, said Brown, HUB is asking the city to help fund these additional initiatives:

• $17,000 to help publicize the Master Speakers Series, a joint project of the Asheville Art Museum and the Asheville-Buncombe Library System that aims to further boost the city’s image as a major arts destination. Already slated to speak later this year are Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman and artists Faith Ringgold, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the latter two known worldwide for their massive, temporary environmental-art installations.

• $20,000 to help refurbish a central downtown home for the Artists Resource Center, where arts-related businesses as well as local artists and performing groups can receive entrepreneurial support and training.

• $20,000 for a “Handmade Home” promotion to publicize and advertise, via professional associations, the concept of Asheville’s Design Center and the bringing together of crafts and construction professionals.

Brown also asked Council members to consider allocating space in the Civic Center or some other publicly visible downtown venue where the UNCA-based Renaissance Computing Institute can establish a communication-and-demonstration center. On yet another front, Brown suggested that the city team up with HUB in promoting Asheville as the state’s designated demonstration site of a “green city” that’s adopting specific measures to reduce the impact OF climate change.

In between his various requests, however, Brown also offered to help, saying the nonprofit’s wide-ranging network of members is ready to propose specific programs designed to meet Council’s stated goals in such areas as riverfront redevelopment and affordable housing.

After a brief discussion, Council members referred Brown’s requests to the Planning and Economic Development Committee for further consideration.

Council members noted that while the Office of Economic Development’s budget already includes a $50,000 appropriation for the Economic Development Coalition, the HUB Project requests would require budget amendments. And Vice Mayor Jan Davis said he supports giving the money to the EDC and continuing to hold a voting seat on the Coalition’s board.

Council member Brownie Newman said Council needs to think in terms of a total dollar amount for economic development, because other such proposals will also be seeking for city funding.

Council member Carl Mumpower said he’s sympathetic to the various economic-development proposals. But with the city facing a potential $1.3 million shortfall as it begins to craft a budget for the next fiscal year, prioritizing the HUB requests would be “a misinvestment of our energies as well as our dollars,” said Mumpower. “I don’t have a problem with these initiatives—they’re creative—but I do have a problem with government getting involved,” he said, adding that this approach smacks of “socialism.”

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