ASHEVILLE, N.C. — In an arrangement that Chamber leaders said would be the first of its kind for the region, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors on Oct. 31 unanimously approved plans to provide economic development services for the Haywood County Chamber on a consulting basis.
“I’m really excited and honored that the Haywood chamber wants to work with us,” Kit Cramer, the Asheville chamber president and CEO told the board members. “I think it’s going to strengthen our entire region.”
“We know that Asheville gets more phone calls than we do, and we know that they turn projects down because it’s not a good fit for them,” says CeCe Hipps, president of the Haywood chamber. “… so basically we’re asking for some consultation services, research assistance, working together more to create some energy between the two counties.”
Hipps says the Haywood chamber doesn’t have the budget to conduct site consultant visits or market the county to outside businesses for the sake of economic development. Her chamber’s budget for economic development is a little over $200,000. “Which doesn’t go very far,” Hipps says.
The Asheville chamber, however, has the resources to help.
“We already have a well-established brand and infrastructure for dealing with business recruitment,” says Cramer.
Through the consulting arrangement, the Asheville chamber would use its established infrastructure help the Haywood chamber market itself across a broader network, present prospective business locations to companies looking for sites and assist in research. Asheville’s chamber already provides research services for the entire Asheville metropolitan statistical area, which includes Buncombe, Haywood, Madison and Henderson counties, Cramer points out.
Partnering with Haywood County would also give prospective clients a broader selection of local products to choose from. When an official from the Asheville chamber visits a site selector, properties in Haywood County will be included as part of the portfolio of available locations. This will give the site selector a better variety of products to choose from — similar to a customer rummaging through a basket of apples.
“We as an economic development agency present a basket of apples to a prospect, and then they pick the apple that they’re looking for,” Cramer says. “And right now the types of projects that would be interested in Haywood and Buncombe we’ve found are very different, because they’re different places and that’s a strength.”
Haywood County economic development staff will continue to support small businesses and carry out programs to encourage business retention, in addition to collaborating with Asheville staff on major new projects, according to Cramer.
Cramer says there could also be the potential for cross jurisdictional projects that cross county lines. She laments that Haywood and Buncombe counties are in the same incentive tier (a designation which controls state funding to attract new businesses to an area) — “which is a travesty in my opinion” — and hopes to see Haywood moved to a lower tier in the future, which would allow them to better compete for the state dollars.
Partnering with Haywood County, Cramer says, “would be formalizing this relationship at a time when our state has been struggling on how to help rural areas. We think this is a very practical but courageous way of working together.”
The Haywood chamber will pay a fee to the Asheville chamber for its assistance.
At the Oct. 31 Asheville chamber board meeting, Buncombe County’s Economic Development Coalition Chair Janice Brumit said the Haywood chamber had been offered three different options that range in price from $50,000 to $150,000 annually over a proposed three-year contract. Since “it will take a little time to get this up and running,” she said, the Asheville chamber believes it’s important to have a commitment of longer than one year.
Cramer says the chamber has had conversations with public officials, including Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman, about the partnership and consider them, as well as members of the private sector, important parts of the process.
Of the Economic Development Coalition of Asheville-Buncombe County’s budget, Cramer explains, about two-thirds comes from private investors and one-third from city and county sources. “$350,000 comes from the county commission, and $100,000 comes from the city,” Cramer says, “so they’re investors in economic development.”
“The strengths of Asheville certainly affect the strengths of the surrounding counties and the strengths of the surrounding counties also impacts Asheville,” Cramer says. About 40 percent of the workers in Buncombe County come from outside the county, a fact that Cramer says makes it incredibly important that neighboring counties are strong. And consumers of all kinds of goods and services are shared among counties, she points out.
Asked at the Asheville chamber’s board meeting whether she sees the possibility of contracting with other local chambers to provide similar services, Cramer said, “I think it’s super-important [Haywood] came to us. … I wouldn’t want anybody to think we were trying to be intrusive.”
Cramer stressed that the Asheville chamber will use existing resources and staff to provide services to Haywood County. “We won’t be adding staff to support this,” she said. The contract will be between the Asheville and Haywood chambers, and the revenue from the arrangement will be classified as “nondues revenue,” she said, a category that currently comprises nine percent of the chamber budget.
Ben Teague, executive director of the EDC of Asheville-Buncombe County, told chamber board members he believes the additional revenue will also benefit Buncombe County’s employer recruiting efforts. “I think it brings more to the table. It’s not just us representing a narrow range of sites,” he said.
With the Asheville chamber on board, the next step will be for the Haywood County Economic Development Coalition and the Haywood chamber to approve the deal. The Haywood EDC is set to meet on Thursday, Nov. 2.
“We think this is precedent-setting, and we want to be leaders in the state in finding this very positive way for a rural and urban areas to work together,” Cramer says.
With reporting by Virginia Daffron