Playing to our strengths

Every community needs jobs, and industrial recruitment has become an increasingly cutthroat game. To beat the competition, the Hub Project proposes using Asheville’s unique qualities to attract new industry while building on the kinds of businesses that have already gained a foothold here. The latest in a long line of large-scale visions for Asheville and environs, the project represents a blend of new ideas and elements drawn from the city’s 2025 Plan and other sources.

Historically, Asheville’s economic activity has been aligned along a few major fronts, such as manufacturing and tourism. In the meantime, however, something else was happening: Cottage industries began cropping up in the region. Some, such as crafts, represented the blending of Appalachia’s history with a new breed of artisan/entrepreneur. Others, such as multimedia, resulted from the contributions of sociologist Richard Florida‘s much-heralded “creative class.” Still others grew out of the work of local educational and medical institutions.

The Hub Project aims to assess these developments, which often happened piecemeal and somewhat scattershot, and find ways to take them to the next level. The project also challenges the traditional approach of using incentives such as tax breaks and infrastructure to attract new businesses. “This opens up a whole lot of new ideas,” says Chuck Tessier, the chair of Asheville’s Economic Development Advisory Committee.

Guiding the Hub Project will be the newly formed Community Economic Development Alliance, a group of local experts appointed mostly by the city and the county. Lower down the management chain, assorted local groups will focus on seven “clusters”: manufacturing, enterprise, technology, marketing, agriculture, rejuvenation and creativity.

Dan Keith Ray of the nonprofit Institute at Biltmore, a local think tank, has had the daunting task of coordinating the various parties involved. “The old paradigm of economic development doesn’t work anymore,” he proclaims. To be competitive today, Asheville and Buncombe County must identify and nurture new niches in the marketplace — without completely abandoning such staples as manufacturing.

Local media-arts specialist and economic-development activist David McConville says a key catalyst for the Hub Project was The Rise of the Creative Class, a documentary about Florida’s work, which had its world premiere in Asheville in 2003.

Initially, says McConville, who served on a working group that laid the groundwork for the project, Florida’s own consulting business was being considered to head up the initiative, as was economic guru (and former Austin mayor) Kirk Watson. Eventually, says McConville, The Institute at Biltmore picked up the ball after being approached by Buncombe County.

Last month, the Asheville City Council named its representatives to the alliance, paving the way for the project’s next step. “We are very excited about the alliance being formed,” says City Manager Gary Jackson.

The cost of the project won’t be clear until the alliance comes asking, says city Economic Development Director Sam Powers. Any city allocations will come out of Asheville’s Office of Economic Development budget, he said, adding that some funding will do double duty as existing economic initiatives are adopted by the Hub. Any county funding will also be rerouted from existing economic-development programs.

Still, the project’s broad scope has spawned caution as well as enthusiasm. Council member Brownie Newman aired concerns about the city’s involvement when Hub was first pitched to City Council last year, saying it seemed to tackle too many fronts at once, but he joined with the rest of Council in endorsing it. And while Newman says the jury is still out on the project, he adds, “I like that it is taking more of an unconventional approach to creativity.”

Others have questioned the seeming vagueness of the program’s goals and methods. “I get the question all the time: ‘What is the Hub?'” says McConville, who’s no longer connected with the project. “It’s been difficult to explain.”

What the Hub?

The Hub concept draws on the work of professor Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School, who focuses on what he calls economic clusters. Inevitably, says Porter, economic activity coalesces around certain focal points, whether it happens as a result of conscious planning or simply emerges from existing conditions.

Buncombe County’s clusters, says Ray, include creativity, technology and medicine. “The question becomes, how do we exploit those?” he notes.

As an example, he cites the Asheville-based nonprofit Handmade in America. Among other things, the group unites artisans from around the region and works with local communities to better market crafts and the places they’re made. “We could have left the craft industry alone,” notes Ray, but exploiting it has helped turn it into what Becky Anderson of Handmade says is now a $140 million-a-year industry.

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