Piloting the economic boat

“Sustainable economic development” has become something of a buzzword, these days. But, like many such catch phrases, this one may mean different things to different people.

The Sustainable Communities Network, a national partnership of governmental and advocacy organizations, defines it this way: “The goal of community sustainability is to establish local economies that are economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible. Achieving this goal requires participation from all sectors of the community.”

The phrase was also foremost in the minds of those elected officials — from Asheville, Buncombe County, Black Mountain, Woodfin, Biltmore Forest and Weaverville — who attended a Feb. 20 Joint Government Informational Forum at UNCA. Judging by their comments, sustainability seems to be a common goal in the county.

But what, exactly, does the concept mean to each of these officials? After the conference, Mountain Xpress surveyed a number of the participants about the issue — and learned that many weren’t sure how to define sustainability, in its strict sense. Most, however, seemed to understand at least one key component of the concept: considering economic development in conjunction with housing, infrastructure and quality-of-life issues.

No more us vs. them

“Everybody lives in Buncombe County,” Commissioner Bill Stanley reminded conference attendees. Recently appointed to serve on a sustainable-communities committee for the National Association of County Commissioners, Stanley wanted to get everyone in Buncombe working off the same page. “We need to get out of the me/mine and into the we/us,” he declared.

That means looking at the county and its municipalities as a whole, and working together, asserted Stanley. He noted several key pieces of any effort to build sustainable communities: protecting natural resources, solving infrastructure problems; providing better housing opportunities; and creating a viable economy — one that relies less on the historically low-paying, service-sector jobs so prevalent in the area today. “They don’t pay dishwashers much. They don’t pay maids much. They don’t pay waiters much,” said Stanley. And, as a result, those workers can’t afford to buy an average-priced home in Buncombe, he pointed out.

Agreeing with Stanley, Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick remarked, “The us-vs.-them mentality doesn’t get us where we want to go: We’re here today to stop pointing fingers.” Sitnick also emphasized the need to preserve what we have today, so that we leave enough for tomorrow.

A number of organizations in the county are attempting to address economic-development issues: the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and its Economic Development Commission; Advantage West; the North Carolina Department of Commerce; the city of Asheville; the Council of Independent Business Owners; and other groups. But Commissioner David Gantt says he wonders whether those involved don’t wind up working at cross-purposes. “I don’t want us to duplicate services. Are we doing enough to coordinate [economic development], to get the most bang for our buck?” he said at the conference.

The county, he mentioned later, pays the Chamber nearly $400,000 a year to handle its economic development, while Asheville has its own Business and Development office — and has just commissioned a consultant to prepare a strategic economic plan. Advantage West and the state consider the regional picture. And smaller municipalities in the county, Gantt continued, may not have the budgets to support economic-development efforts, but still need to be included. “There’s a lot of turf involved. But there has to be a joint effort: If we’re all spinning off in our own direction, we can’t do it,” he argued.

That said, Gantt went on to explain his theory of sustainable economic development. “What I’d like to see is to get the kinds of jobs in here that preserve the environment but give people an income [sufficient] to buy homes and have a high quality of life,” he said.

Counties and municipalities that achieve this, Gantt concludes, do it by working together — and having a plan of action.

Forging a common vision

“You’ve got to have some kind of plan for growth,” proclaims fellow Buncombe County Commissioner David Young. “Otherwise, you get wild growth, like an industrial plant next to an elementary school.” His definition of sustainability? “Smart growth. That’s the way [Asheville Vice Mayor Ed] Hay put it.”

At the conference, Hay stressed the need for “smart” growth — and the need for all parties to use complementary strategies for achieving it. “Sustainable economic development,” Hay later explained, “means economic prosperity that takes care of generations to come. We need to carefully marshal our resources so that we build on that, not diminish it.”

He cited the Broadlands Technical Park as an example of a creative effort made with an eye to the future: With an economic-incentive award from the city last year, the project’s developers built facilities for Volvo Construction’s new headquarters; started work on a “flex” building that can be custom-fitted to suit a new industrial tenant (or tenants); and planned a Learning Resource Center for job training and related uses.

Hay also brought up another common principle of sustainable economic development: creating a mix of residential, industrial and commercial growth that’s designed to be pedestrian-friendly and convenient to schools and transportation.

Walkability (another buzzword) is a concept that’s also much on the minds of Black Mountain officials. “We’ve basically got a beautiful small community that’s absolutely going to grow quickly. We’re just trying to figure out how to keep that small-town feeling, 15 to 20 years from now,” explained Black Mountain Mayor Mike Begley. But creating smaller-scale, walkable developments is only one part of the puzzle. Black Mountain officials are also reviewing infrastructure needs and transportation-planning issues for the town, since both will affect economic development, he continued.

When Interstate 40 was completed years ago, Black Mountain’s downtown actually suffered, at first, as development was drawn to the interstate, Begley explained. But downtown Black Mountain has since been transformed into a vibrant community of small shops, restaurants and homes. For Begley, sustainable economic development means keeping that unique character — while looking ahead. Accordingly, Black Mountain has just hired its first urban planner, he pointed out.

“This isn’t a textbook definition, but sustainable economic development, to me, means the type of development that allows our town to continue to thrive with its current character, but [also provides] employment suitable to the area, meets housing needs, and gives us a chance to thrive in the future — without having to sacrifice what makes this a special community,” said Begley.

For Buncombe County as a whole, however, “sacrifice” may take on a broader meaning as commissioners move toward countywide zoning, which they hope will help create sustainable, planned growth. Speaking about sustainable economic development, Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Sobol said: “It’s a philosophy, to me. Like [Asheville Mayor] Sitnick said, we need to save enough today for tomorrow. But, even deeper than that, it may mean sacrificing a little today for what we need tomorrow.” And that, he concluded, means land-use planning.

Buncombe Commissioner Patsy Keever agreed. “Sustainable economic development means you use what we have now effectively and appropriately, so that it’s available for all our children and grandchildren in the future.”

Getting there from here

Black Mountain Vice Mayor Sara Marcia Rafter summed up another point that officials in the county seem to agree on, observing, “We recognize that we have some issues that are common throughout Buncombe: the lack of available land” — as in, flat land suitable for larger commercial and industrial development.

How does Rafter propose to address that shortage? “It’s important that we recycle the [industrial] sites that we do have, as well as finding new ones,” she said, mentioning the former Sayles-Biltmore Bleachery site along the Swannanoa River in east Asheville. Long vacant because of hazardous-waste problems discovered after Sayles had closed its doors, the site is now being redeveloped and leased to smaller companies. “That’s a remarkable site, close to highways and colleges and schools,” noted Rafter, adding, “Recycling that site saves taking up more land and more natural resoures.”

Recycling vacant or underused sites, she believes, is a key component of sustainable development. “Sustainable, in its simplest form, means using only what you need and leaving as much as you can for the future.”

Woodfin Alderman John Young can agree with those points, even if he’s not exactly sure what younger folks mean by sustainable economic development. “I’m a little hard of hearing, and I didn’t catch half of what Stanley said at the conference,” Young confessed. But Woodfin has done its own bit of recycling, by necessity: After the town lost its major employer — Burlington Industries — a number of years ago, the company’s large manufacturing facility on the French Broad River was reborn as an office complex.

“What we’re doing right now, we’re getting ready to work on a golf course, an office park, more single-family homes and a park. It’s all together,” said Alderman Young. Affordable housing, business growth and high-paying jobs are part of Woodfin’s formula for economic development, he said, noting, “We need more homes that people can afford — that’s a big part of it.”

But Woodfin can’t do it all alone; neither can Black Mountain or the county’s other small municipalities. “Some issues are larger than the town of Black Mountain,” Begley remarked.

“It starts with education,” asserted Weaverville Commissioner Robert Neiger; “That’s your bottom line.” If Weaverville or any town in the county wants to attract high-paying jobs, “We have to have the well-educated personnel,” he said. To him, sustainable economic development is part of a circle that also includes education, housing, jobs, a variety of industries … and spending habits. Jobs created just about anywhere in Buncombe bring employees who spend money locally, benefiting all the county’s governmental entities, he explained.

But low local wages create a break in the circle: Service-industry workers, Neiger reasoned, can’t afford to buy housing in the county. And without competition from higher-paying industries, employers can keep wages down. “That’s a vicious circle,” observed Neiger. “So what do we do? There’s no easy answer.”

Weaverville Commissioner Al Root also sees sustainability in terms of people. “When I think of sustainable economic development, I think in terms of industries that are going to … provide employment for people already living here, or [for people] moving here, and [industry] that’s going to stay here awhile and not leave us,” he commented. North Carolina, he noted, has seen a loss of manufacturing jobs, particularly in the textile industry. To attract new industries that pay as well or better, Root believes that Weaverville, neighboring municipalities and the county have to come up with what those industries need — such as a trained, educated workforce, as well as basic infrastructure.

That’s all crucial, agreed Weaverville Mayor Bett Stroud. But new development must also give back to the community, by including what she calls “the amenities” — landscaping, sidewalks, greenways, pedestrian-friendly design, and growth that doesn’t intrude on neighborhoods. “We can accept any kind of growth that comes along, but it [must] include the amenities. It’s too easy to just accept growth that comes with asphalt.” Stroud argued for having a land-use plan and being guided by it. “If we didn’t have that [in Weaverville], anything could go in.”

The extension of the Interstate 26 corridor (along U.S. Highway 19-23), for instance, brings the promise of economic development to northwest Buncombe, Stroud continued: “But we’re trying to keep our town attractive and economically viable. We’ve got plenty of businesses that want to come [here]: We just have to pick which ones we want.”

However widely these officials’ ideas about sustainability may vary, the very fact of their coming together for the UNCA forum may signal a new interest in cooperative economic development. “If we start talking about what we can agree on, maybe the divisiveness can be smoothed out,” said Rafter, noting that the Feb. 20 forum prompted “good dialogue.”

County commissioners Young and Gantt, for example, invited every municipality in Buncombe to send a representative to Economic Development Commission meetings, as a step toward better coordination of local efforts to spur “smart” growth.

Asheville City Council member Barbara Field suggested forming a sustainable-development committee, observing that, from a big-picture perspective, “All of it [comes down to] quality of life.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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