As the old saying goes, sometimes you have to spend money to make money. To that end, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners awarded $350,000 in fiscal year 2018-19 to support the Asheville-Buncombe County Economic Development Coalition. At the board’s Aug. 20 meeting, members learned what the quasi-governmental body had done to grow the region’s economy over that period.
Clark Duncan, the EDC’s executive director and senior vice president for economic development at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that many people think of his group’s work through the lens of new industry recruitment and the associated financial incentives. Two such projects did come to Buncombe last year: Canadian heating and cooling company Haakon Industries pledged $19.6 million in new capital investment, while Georgia-based shock absorber maker Fox Factory promised to invest $1 million. Together, the projects are expected to bring 225 jobs to the region for a total county incentive of roughly $192,000.
But Duncan emphasized that the EDC also helps existing area businesses build their workforce and understand market opportunities. The group’s new NEXT AVL mentorship program pairs county professionals with local college students from immigrant, minority or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. “These are students that need more of our social capital as local professionals and also, frankly, maybe have the hardest time seeing their future success in Buncombe County,” he said.
Workforce development is particularly important for Buncombe County, Duncan added, given the county’s best-in-state unemployment rate — 3.4% in June, the latest month for which data is available. The EDC helped conduct an employer survey across Buncombe’s 10-county “laborshed,” the area from which it draws employees, to determine what skills are most in demand.
And the EDC’s Venture Asheville program, focused on area startups, worked to create new jobs locally by attracting over $4 million in capital, including more than $1 million from a “road trip” that took entrepreneurs to pitch before investors in Charlotte, Durham and Raleigh. “Sometimes you have to bootstrap funding in Western North Carolina, and I’m really proud of our participants,” Duncan said.
Tim Love, the county’s director of intergovernmental projects, followed Duncan to update the commission on the status of older economic development agreements. Of nearly $25.8 million in pledged incentives, the county had disbursed less than $6.7 million; companies such as Linamar and GE Aviation, he explained, hadn’t yet met their targets for job creation and capital investment, which are tied to incentive payments.
Love noted that all of the companies under existing agreements had exceeded Buncombe’s goals for average employee wages. Asheville-based Burial Beer Co., for example, is currently paying an average salary of $44,000, $10,000 more than its goal, to the workers who’ve filled 20 new jobs created under its county agreement.
The board’s only point of criticism on the economic development efforts came from Commissioner Mike Fryar, who suggested the county should sell the building it currently leases to GE Aviation due to the company’s relatively low tax payments. Buncombe spent $15.7 million on land acquisition and building construction for the facility in the Sweeten Creek Industrial Park; an EDC press release announcing the agreement’s approval in 2013 estimated that GE would pay $1.2 million annually in city and county property taxes, but the company has only paid about $2.1 million in total local taxes in the five years since that time.
“We’ve got to tell the people the truth: That GE deal was a screwup, big time, when we built the building,” Fryar said.