Buncombe Commissioners: Grant grows jobs

  • Buncombe County Board of Commissioners April 6 meeting
  • Rezoning request near Warren Wilson College denied
  • Extension Service initiative promotes local hops production

What happened to all that federal stimulus money? At their April 6 meeting, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners helped answer that question by doling out $6.1 million of it to local projects.

Topping the agenda was a resolution authorizing $4.9 million in federal stimulus funds for AvL Technologies, which produces mobile satellite communications systems. The business will use the money to hire about 75 new employees and move from its current facility in the River Arts District to a bigger space in the Reynolds Village development in Woodfin.

A local manufacturing success story, AvL Technologies began as a one-man operation in 1994 and has evolved into a multimillion-dollar business employing more than 130 people, Commissioner K. Ray Bailey explained.

"They're high-paying jobs," said Bailey, the former president of A-B Tech, recalling how company founder Jim Oliver launched the firm out of a "closet space" at the school. "It's the kind of business we want to nurture in our community, and I think it's a wonderful opportunity for us to assist in this effort."

The resolution was approved 4-0 (Commissioner Holly Jones was absent on a "long-planned and well-deserved vacation," according to board Chair David Gantt).

Also unanimously approved was a resolution authorizing a state contractor to negotiate the best deal on 12 new vans and buses for Mountain Mobility, the county's public transportation system for special-needs passengers. A $1.2 million federal stimulus grant will cover the cost of buying the vehicles, converting them to run on compressed natural gas, equipping them with two-way radios, and two years' worth of maintenance, Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton explained.

"I have to say that without the stimulus money, we wouldn't be able to do this," he noted. "Just the conversion packets … are $25,000 each."

Gantt, meanwhile, praised both Creighton and the Mountain Mobility team for winning the federal grant.

"Thank you for staying on top of things," said Gantt. "I know there were a lot of folks who didn't bother to apply for these things, and this is exactly the intent of the federal government — to help us out and keep us working. And this is a win-win, keeping our carbon footprint down."

Not in my backyard

In other business, the board heard a number of rezoning requests.

The one generating the most public comments concerned a 1.03 acre tract of land near Warren Wilson College that co-owner Don Hunley asked to have rezoned from R-1 (residential district) to NS (neighborhood service district).

Several neighbors spoke against the rezoning, as did co-owner Susan Kask Hunley, who explained that she and her husband are divorcing.

Noting that an independent appraisal had recommended keeping the parcel residential, Ms. Hunley, who teaches economics at Warren Wilson, said, "As co-owner and potential owner of that property, I do not wish to have it rezoned to neighborhood services."

Also opposing the request was Margo Flood, the director of Warren Wilson's Environmental Leadership Center, who cited multiple safety concerns.

"If it was to be a gas facility, there would be thousands of gallons of flammable substances right across from our dorm," she pointed out. "We're very concerned about the sale of alcohol and tobacco across the road from our residence hall. We feel like that will have a negative influence on our campus, and it's not one we ever would have dreamed would happen on that particular lot, or we would not have built there."

The commissioners denied the request on a 4-0 vote.

The board's votes on all seven rezoning requests reflected the recommendations of the county's Planning and Development staff.

Hops County USA?

It takes a lot of hops to produce the brews that helped Asheville lay claim to the title of Beer City USA (a distinction the city shares with Portland, Ore.). And Melinda Roberts is taking steps to help farmers grow the cash crop right here in Buncombe County.

As part of her extensive presentation to the board on the work of the Cooperative Extension Service and its Small Farms Initiative, Roberts highlighted hops' potential as a profitable option for local farmers.

"That's one thing that's driving the establishment of this group of folks that are growing hops," noted Roberts, referring to the strong interest and enthusiasm on the part of Asheville brewers. "Having locally grown — and some are starting to prefer organic hops — is definitely going to be a huge commodity," she predicted.

Oregon and Washington have had the U.S. hops market cornered for decades, but a couple of years ago a nationwide shortage drove up prices, catching the attention of farmers across the country. That's when several Buncombe County farmers planted their first crops, said Roberts, explaining that, like grapes and blueberries, it takes a few years before the plants reach full production.

She also cited recent efforts by local farmers to establish a nonprofit — the Western North Carolina Hops Guild — that could raise money to buy the expensive equipment needed for processing.

Roberts said she's planning a workshop later this year to further educate brewers and farmers on the potential of locally grown hops.

To learn more about the Buncombe County Small Farms Initiative, visit http://buncombe.ces.ncsu.edu/content/Buncombe+County+Small+Farms+Initiative.

Jake Frankel can be reached at jakefrankel@gmail.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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