Buttonholed as they waited in line for a local beer or munched on salads at round tables, Asheville business folk voiced a variety of opinions on the state of local business at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Meeting on June 30. Held at the Omni Grove Park Inn, the sold-out event featured award presentations, an update on Chamber activities and officers and a presentation by nationally recognized entrepreneur, author and speaker Josh Linkner.
Ben Hamrick, CEO of local accounting firm Johnson Price Sprinkle, said his firm’s business “has really ramped up in the last 18 months.” The practice serves primarily family-run, small- to middle-market companies in a variety of industries. Hamrick and his business partner Noel Swartz said clients in the hospitality and tourism sectors, however, had seen “some impact” lately, perhaps as a result of negative publicity related to the state’s passage of HB2 this spring.
Michael Meguiar, site manager of Asheville’s GE Aviation manufacturing facility, said GE’s business is flourishing. In 20 years with GE, Meguiar said he’s lived in six different cities around the U.S. “No other place I’ve lived has been as invested in growing and supporting the business community,” he commented. The main reason GE Aviation recently chose to expand its Asheville operation, he continued, was because of the company’s “very capable” existing workforce here.
Small business champion Patrick Fitzsimmons of Mountain BizWorks, on the other hand, raised the alarm about two recent top 10 lists Asheville would rather not have made. Fitzsimmons pointed out that Asheville has the third-fastest growing commercial rental rates in the country, and it is the fourth-hardest place in the U.S. to achieve the American dream. These rankings are “a bad sign” for Asheville’s entrepreneurs and local small businesses, Fitzsimmons said.
A local banking official who didn’t want to be named said that, although he doesn’t have specific data to support his impressions, he believes local business activity may be down 10-30 percent over last year. He also said that his institution is seeing a slight decrease in the volume of housing loan activity.
James Bailey, an attorney at The Van Winkle Law Firm, said “things are hopping” within his practice in trusts and estates and business law.
As the evening’s program got underway, the Chamber announced several awards. Among Chamber member companies with fewer than 15 employees, Russ Towers of Second Gear received the Small Business Leader of the Year Award. Kevin Westmoreland and Joe Scully of Corner Kitchen and Chestnut were honored as the Small Business Leaders of the Year for companies with more than 15 employees.
The Excellence in Public Service Award went to Karen Cragnolin, RiverLink founder and executive director. Cragnolin announced in May that she will step down from her post when a new leader is found, though she will continue to consult to the organization. Attendees gave Cragnolin a standing ovation.
Receiving the Volunteer of the Year Award, which recognizes Chamber members who have given of their time and talents beyond the call of duty in volunteer efforts with the Chamber, were Jack Cecil of Biltmore Farms, Jason Walls of Duke Energy, Taylor Voss of Mission Health and Janice Brumit of Brumit Restaurant Group. The four were recognized for their leadership of the successful AVL 5×5 plan.
Keynote speaker Josh Linkner kicked off his talk with a quiz, asking attendees which retailer was the country’s largest in 1950. Sears, J. C. Penney, Woolworth and Montgomery Ward all were called out in response, but Linkner surprised the crowd by announcing that grocer A & P held the top spot — and quickly lost it due to an inability to innovate in response to a changes in the marketplace.
Linkner, who started his career as a jazz guitarist, urged attendees to cultivate “everyday innovation,” saying, “I’m talking about the little stuff. We need to apply a sense of innovative wonder to all our business practices to take our businesses to the next level.”
Reached on Friday morning after the event, Chamber president and CEO Kit Cramer commented on the role her organization may play in advocating for a possible bond referendum to fund projects in the city of Asheville. If the bond issue moves forward, it will appear on the general election ballot in November.
“We have pulled together a group of business people to examine the proposal and meet with the mayor,” Cramer wrote in an email. “Should we have consensus for supporting the bonds it’s likely that we’d take a leadership role in a vote yes committee. It would be important to involve a broad cross section of the community in such an effort, so we’re thinking through that as well. There are a lot of organizations that already exist to promote particular pieces addressed by the bonds, and we’d want to work closely with them to maximize impact. Many of our members are property owners in the city, so there is a lot of interest in the proposal. Ensuring that all of our questions are answered is the first step.”
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer commented on Thursday that chambers of commerce are typically leading advocates for bond measures, and that Chamber support “will be critical” to a prospective bond’s chances for approval by the voters.
Reprinted from the event program, here is a list of 2015-2016 Chamber accomplishments:
- Launched AVL 5×5: Vision 2020 plan. Raised $2,728,250.
- Asheville Angels completed 10th equity investment. Total investment over $500,000 since inception.
- 10 entrepreneurs for inaugural class of Elevate program which fosters high-growth ventures.
- 350 attendees turned out to hear Bruce Katz of The Brookings Institution at Annual Metro Economy Outlook.
- Hosted 17 executive community visits by prospect companies.
- Two local companies announced expansions: Burial Beer, $1.8M, 17 new jobs; Baldor Electric Company, $4.2M, 41 new jobs.
- More than 125 employers and thousands of job seekers attended 2016 Homecoming Career Fair.
132 jobs filled from the Venture Asheville job board.
- Generated 5 million visits to ExploreAsheville.com through multi-dimensional advertising campaign.
- New campaign videos topped 5.4 million views.
- Executed 668 proactive, targeted media pitches and hosted 175 journalists.
- Generated media exposure totaling 2.5 billion impressions.
- Launched new strategies to make Asheville a “Top Music Town.”
- Executed more than 9,195 outreaches to meeting and event buyers.
- Booked 386 groups representing 63,099 room nights and estimated value of $13,247,026.
- Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority awarded $3.9 million in Tourism Product Development Fund grants.
- Served more than 210,000 visitors through Asheville Visitor Center.
Serving as a Voice for Business
- Represented voice of business on a local, state and federal level.
- Hosted Legislative Luncheons to thank elected officials and share legislative priorities.
- 35 WNC business leaders visited Raleigh to discuss regional priorities with legislators.
- Helped organize a coalition of NC Chambers and businesses to address NCGA Sales Tax Redistribution proposal.
- Convened housing committee to explore workforce housing needs.
- Traveled to Ft. Collins, CO for Intercity Strategic Leadership
- Visit with 35 local leaders to learn best practices, innovative thinking and successful initiatives.
Fostering Member Success
- Held Asheville Small Business Week with 7 events and more than 450 attendees.
- Held first regional Business Expo with 125 vendors and more than 400 attendees.
- Nearly 1,500 registrants showed their commitment to fitness at 10th Chamber Challenge.
- Celebrated members with more than 150 ribbon cuttings, 12 Small Business of the month recognitions and 36 Sky High Award recipients.
- Welcomed 255 new members.
- 11 million referrals for member businesses through the online business directory.
- 2000+ attendees fostered business connections at member-to-member networking events.
- 37 restaurants participated in Asheville Restaurant Week. More than $50,000 of revenue generated during shoulder season.