Amid the continuing flight of manufacturing firms from Western North Carolina, the latest buzzword for attracting new jobs to the region seems to be “high-tech.”
The Asheville City Council got a glimpse of that future at its Jan. 25 formal session when it approved a $25,000 economic-incentive grant to help bring a new high-tech company to town.
Navigational Sciences Inc. (now based in Charleston, S.C.) coordinates GIS satellite communications systems and sells the requisite hardware used to keep tabs on cargo being transported worldwide. Company CEO Eric Dobson told Council members that he’s already packing for the move, and the administrative and sales offices should be up and running in downtown Asheville by June.
The city teamed up with Buncombe County and AdvantageWest, a regional economic-development commission chartered by the state, to attract NSI. Each partner is contributing $25,000, payable over three years.
In exchange, Navigational Sciences has pledged to invest $2 million. Originally, a capital investment of $4 million was planned, but Dobson told Council that a sharp drop in computer software and hardware prices had cut that figure in half. NSI has also pledged to create 12 new jobs at an average annual salary of $50,000, according to the wording of the agreement.
At this point, however, it isn’t clear how many of those jobs will go to current Asheville residents. Dobson admitted that at least four company employees are planning to move here. He also noted that although NSI will seek to tap Asheville’s base of qualified workers, the search will be conducted nationwide.
Navigational Sciences began piecing together a worldwide GIS network and the hardware to track cargo in 2000. The technology, said Dobson, enables the company to keep tabs on every aspect of a package: “what’s in it, where it’s been and who has come in contact with it,” as well as the immediate environment surrounding it (i.e. temperature, moisture, etc.). GIS uses layers of digital information to visually represent complex data.
In a later interview, Dobson said the technology was originally developed to help cargo reach its destination faster. But after Sept. 11, the potential security applications emerged. All you have to do is stand at the port in Charleston and look out at all the ships to understand the potential security risk there, Dobson told Council.
The company, he said, will retain an outpost in Charleston and may establish offices in other port towns, such as Wilmington. Questioned by Council member Holly Jones, Dobson said the receptive local business community and the city’s stated desire to expand the availability of wireless broadband downtown were among the factors that attracted him to Asheville.
He also said the company will most likely outsource its equipment manufacturing. This could bring more new jobs to WNC, though there are no guarantees.
Although City Council was united in welcoming Navigational Sciences to town, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower remained resistant to the idea of using taxpayer money to attract businesses.
“If some of us vote against this, it is not a reflection on the wonderful thing you bring to this community; it is purely philosophical,” Mumpower warned before registering the lone vote opposing the incentive grant. “Forty-nine percent of me wants to vote for this.”
Even Council member Joe Dunn, Mumpower’s frequent ally in the fight to conserve taxpayer dollars, voted to approve the grant.
“I think Carl’s got a good point, but these high-tech jobs are exactly what we need. This could put us on the map for this technology,” Dunn declared.
Council member Brownie Newman, meanwhile, said that while he supports the grant, he’d like to re-examine the entire economic-incentives policy to see if there’s a way to support those businesses already in Asheville.
“A lot of people create one job here and one job there and invest in our tax base and get nothing,” noted Newman.
Council member Terry Bellamy was absent from the meeting.
Park and parcel
Buncombe County is turning over Aston Park — a county park within the city limits — to the city of Asheville.
This is the first of several property transfers stemming from the city’s decision to dissolve the Water Agreement with Buncombe County (the document also addresses assorted non-water-related matters). Other recreational facilities — such as McCormick Field and the municipal golf course — are to follow, City Manager Jim Westbrook explained later.
The Hilliard Avenue park, which is only a few blocks from downtown, has gained a reputation as a gathering place for the homeless and a hot spot for alcohol and other drug use. The county had previously removed most of the playground equipment.
Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan told Xpress that APD units regularly patrol the area. And if the playground equipment is replaced, he said, his department will step up its patrols to make the park safer for children.
The county is offering the park as is, and Council members were aware that it will need substantial work. The city will have to spend about $68,000 to get the facility up and running, Brinson told Council.
“Our intention is to make it a very active park,” said Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson.
“We’re also going to make it a safe place,” added Mumpower. “It’s not going to be what it is right now.”
At present, the property’s major feature is the Aston Park Tennis Center, with its 12 courts and grandstands. The only other remaining equipment is a few swing sets and some basketball courts. Council members voted unanimously to accept the park. And in a related action, they accepted a $262,576 grant from the Irene and Dick Covington Foundation to help fund a new tennis center (to be completed by 2006).
Auntie Asheville wants you
The city is seeking applicants to serve on the following boards and commissions: the Educational Access Channel Commission, the Public Art Board and Community Action Opportunities. The application deadline is Thursday, Feb. 10. For more information or an application, call 259-5601.
[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]