ECOnomics 101

Talented artists, mountain music and locally owned, eco-friendly businesses all rank among Asheville's many claims to fame. And despite the down economy, a lot of green companies here have kept their doors open, even as new ones are added to the mix.

Pre-green and still green: "We were green before it became trendy, so we've had an opportunity to develop our skills and abilities through experience — and, with that, our reputation," says Andy Brown, president of Equinox Environmental. Photo by Halima Flynt

To be sure, there are many reasons these businesses have been able to hang tough. But their owners' personal and professional commitment to sustainability has been their backbone.

Stay ahead of the curve

Ashevilleans were going green long before the current buzz. That's given local business owners a strong working knowledge of sustainable practices while building support for those efforts.

"We were green before it became trendy, so we've had an opportunity to develop our skills and abilities through experience — and, with that, our reputation," says Andy Brown, president of Equinox Environmental. The consulting firm's goal is to facilitate conservation and sustainable development by offering ecological, planning and design services. "We've stuck by [our] mission, even when it meant turning down projects. I think for the most part the public recognizes our sincerity, and we've developed a pretty good reputation for walking our talk."

One tool Brown is using to maintain the company's eco-creds is what he describes as an "extensive but manageable" in-house energy audit. This, he believes, will yield three clear benefits: reducing the firm's own environmental footprint, enhancing audit skills that can be applied to clients later, and trimming the costs of running a business — a key part of the company's strategy for staying competitive in today's challenging economic climate.

Equinox, notes Brown, is excited to be in 2010 with an intact and fully employed team. "Our mantra in 2009 was 'survive,' but we feel we've turned a corner," he remarks.

Changing focus: Michael Figura of MOSAIC Community Lifestyle Realty, which runs an energy-retrofit program. Photo by Jonathan Welch

"We have all intentions of thriving," says Brown. "We're just now figuring what we are going to do in response to climate change and the best ways we can help satisfy government and market forces mobilized to address this issue. I think that we are uniquely suited to position ourselves strongly in that market while continuing to do well what we already do."

Adapt, adapt, adapt

Michael Figura has also taken dramatic steps to secure his business's future, completely rebranding the company and charting a new course. In February, Figura officially unveiled MOSAIC Community Lifestyle Realty, the former Eco Concepts Realty (which developed West Asheville's Gaia community). "People have reacted very positively," he reports. "We've put a lot of time and effort into being a reflection of the Asheville community and, as such, we have an artistic brand and an Asheville vibe."

Although the economic downturn was the impetus for the move, Figura also feels he's found the upside. "I've changed the focus from new green construction to the existing home market, with a special emphasis on improving the energy efficiency and health of these homes," he notes. "Getting to focus on greening the existing housing market is something I've wanted to do for a long time."

To that end, Figura and his new team have launched an energy-retrofit program. "If [clients] use us as buyer's agents to help them purchase a home, then we pay for the BuildSmart Alliance to do an energy audit of the house they purchase, and we furnish them with a suggested-improvements report" detailing the costs and projected energy savings, he explains. MOSAIC also offers these reports to sellers who are interested in making green upgrades to attract buyers.

Figura concedes that labeling a business as "green" risks rejection by skeptics who dismiss the claims as mere marketing hype. But he believes his biggest success during hard times has been his ability to adapt while staying true to the values that led him into real estate to begin with: environmental and social responsibility.

Be creative

Rather than rebranding, Peter Pollay opted to switch gears entirely. Leaving real estate behind, Pollay teamed up with his wife, Martha, to open Posana Café, a restaurant/bar/coffee house, last May at 1 Biltmore Ave. in downtown Asheville.

"I'd say the most difficult aspect of opening a business during a grim economy was coping with the fear and doubt that would appear on people's faces when we told them what we were doing," Martha recalls. But the Pollays, too, managed to find the upside to the downturn. "If the economy were booming, we never would have known the location was available, and it was this location that allowed us to move forward with our vision."

The couple describes their business model as "blending a multitude of food-and-beverage services under one roof" while remaining "affordable and family-friendly." And they definitely viewed their new enterprise through green-colored glasses.

"Restaurants," says Peter, "use an extreme amount of natural resources. We wanted to do what we could do to lower our effects on the environment and create an optimal environment for our staff and guests." An eco-friendly remodel and other green choices recently earned Posana certification by the Green Restaurant Association.

That recognition is gratifying, but a more fundamental measure of customers' response to the Pollays' sustainable approach is that business has been booming.

"A growing number of diners are becoming aware of the personal and global benefits to green dining," notes Martha. "At this point in history, I wouldn't say [being green] is crucial to your success in business. However, I imagine in time customers will consistently lean in the green direction when making their choices."

[Freelance writer Maggie Cramer lives in Asheville.]

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