In the past year, at least four businesses have chosen not to locate in Buncombe County — for lack of adequate sites. One company needed a 50-acre site, complete with water, sewer and other infrastructure. Another found greener pastures in Henderson County, noted Buncombe County Commissioner David Young at the Board of Commissioners’ regular meeting on April 11.
Making local economic development even more challenging is the fact that many companies can’t find the skilled workers they need here, according to a report presented to the board by the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission.
Both companies already here and new arrivals “have to go out of state and out of town to fill [high-paying] jobs. That’s a disgrace,” exclaimed Buncombe County Commissioner David Gantt, after hearing the report.
But the news wasn’t all bad. Since 1994, the EDC has assisted 32 companies (including both expansions of existing businesses and new recruits). Those businesses have generated 4,523 jobs with an average salary of $11.62 an hour, according to Dave Porter, vice president of economic development for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce (which partners with the EDC). More than 2,300 of those jobs were directly created by the 32 firms. And more than 70 percent of all new jobs created in the county come from existing businesses, Porter continued. Those companies contributed substantially to the $18.2 million increase in state and local tax revenues since 1994 — and to the cumulative $146 million rise in personal income during that same period, Porter revealed. “I can’t stress enough the importance of the continued growth of [existing] businesses,” he declared.
“We get a lot of criticism for not keeping [existing] industries here. What are we doing?” asked Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Patsy Keever.
To improve communication with existing businesses, the Chamber has created a rapid-response team to address possible plant closings and other issues, and has begun making regular visits to local businesses “to see what they need,” responded Denise Fall — the Chamber’s new director of business and industry services. Fall reports that Chamber representatives visited 27 local companies in February, and surveyed 17 of them. These companies already collectively employ 910 people, and project hiring 61 more in the coming year, she continued.
Fall reported that the companies surveyed cited several advantages to doing business in the Asheville/Buncombe area — such as the availability of local suppliers, the proximity to customers, a strong work ethic in the labor force, and an improving business climate. But one oft-mentioned disadvantage was the lack of a sufficiently trained work force, she said.
“What skills are missing?” asked Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol.
Math skills, primarily — as well as basic reading and communication skills, and the desire to work — Fall replied. More particularly, surveyed businesses have reported a need for welders, fabricators, machine assemblers and operators, product assemblers and engineers. The wages for these jobs range from $8 to $19.25 per hour (the latter for engineers), according to Fall’s report.
Gantt suggested that this information “go directly to the source” — i.e., guidance counselors, school administrators and the students themselves.
And Keever pointed out that many of the courses needed to create trained workers are already available at AB Tech.
With all the numbers being tossed around, Gerald Dean — a candidate for the Board of Commissioners — asked, “Do we know how many [jobs] we’ve lost [since 1994]?”
Porter replied that the county has had a net gain of more than 10,000 jobs in recent years, though he didn’t have a breakdown on the number of jobs lost.
Dean went on to emphasize that Buncombe County needs to bring in high-tech industries “if we have to hog-tie them and bring them here.” He also noted that many of the jobs Porter and Fall mentioned pay just $8 an hour, saying that’s not enough to meet basic living needs in this area.
Young interjected that one company needs 75 workers and is willing to pay $13 an hour, “[but] they can’t find the workers [here].”
Don Yelton, a candidate for the chairmanship of the Board of Commissioners, said he was “puzzled” by Porter’s statement that the county had been named by Problem Solving Research Inc. as one of North Carolina’s top counties, in terms of overall economic-development performance — since Chamber representatives, EDC members and local officials claim the county does not have enough sites available to house new industries. He urged the commissioners to be more creative in attracting industries and preparing sites. Yelton also questioned the wisdom of converting part of the now-defunct BASF Corporation property in Enka-Candler to soccer fields, instead of using it as an industrial site.
Sobol noted that the numerous acres of fields surrounding the old plant are in a floodplain and would not be suitable for industrial development.
And Porter added that part of the BASF site is being developed by A-B Tech as a business incubator and technical-training center — both potentially helpful in attracting new industry to the area.
Hazel Fobes, the chair of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air, noted that many residents hear the word “industry” and immediately have a negative reaction. She also suggested that commissioners, EDC members and Chamber staff quiz companies on other things they need — such as good schools for their employees’ children.
As the discussion concluded, Sobol remarked, “A lot of the work force is going to have to be retrained.”
Pay your own way
Life in politics often takes a bite out of your pocketbook: Three Buncombe County commissioners, who plan to attend the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce retreat in Greensboro, announced that they’ll be paying their own way. (A few years ago, commissioners and Asheville City Council members were roundly criticized for an expensive Chamber retreat held on the South Carolina coast.) The cost to each commissioner: $775.
Commissioner David Gantt, Vice Chair Patsy Keever and Chair Tom Sobol all plan to attend the retreat.
A Vanderbilt face-lift
Thanks to some private grants and a financial boost from the county, the Vanderbilt Apartments in downtown Asheville are getting a much-needed face-lift: As part of the $1.8 million project, now under way, the facility’s brick facade will be repaired and stained (the building once resembled the historic Battery Park Apartments nearby), and a few decorative touches will be added, to hearken back to the building’s early days as a fine hotel, General Manager Joanne Johnston reported to county commissioners on April 11.
She also politely noted that the Vanderbilt’s board of directors will probably be back in the next fiscal year to submit a new request for funding assistance.
That noted, Johnston reminded commissioners of the facility’s mission: The Vanderbilt houses 151 elderly residents, most of them women receiving some form of federal assistance. She also announced the creation of a residents’ council and a program providing access to medical services and transportation, wellness education, some housekeeping assistance, and a new Meals on Wheels service.
Mulch for sale
If you’ve got $8 and a pickup truck, you can get a one-ton load of mulch from the county landfill. Nearly 925 tons of the stuff is available, explained Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene. “Eight dollars is pretty good for a load of mulch,” she observed, noting that it was produced from the more than 1,300 tons of wood waste brought to the landfill in 1999.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could visit only one place, one time, when you needed a permit of some sort? Buncombe County is working on the concept, reported Greene at the commissioners’ April 11 meeting.
There’s a particular need to ease the county’s permitting process for first-time requesters, she said, citing the example of a county resident who buys a mobile home on a Friday and doesn’t realize which permits he needs to be able to move in on Tuesday.
Creating a truly one-stop permitting process could mean co-locating the services involved (such as sewer, water, electrical and building safety). “Or it may be a virtual solution,” said Greene, mentioning the possibility of getting permits via computer. In any case, staff is working on the issue and hopes to implement a program by next January, she concluded.
It seems as though the same folks tend to get up and speak every other week during the public-comment period, a couple of commissioners have lamented privately. Several of the usual crowd are candidates challenging the incumbents for office this year. Some are regular government watchdogs, such as Candler resident Jerry Rice, who first started following county government when he was involved with the local group Taxpayers for Accountable Government, several years ago.
On April 11, Rice brought up a common complaint of voters: political stump speeches that promise the same ol’ thing but never deliver — such as declaring that we need to reduce class sizes in public schools. Every candidate says it, Rice pointed out, “but I haven’t seen it yet.”
“Me, either,” interjected Vice Chair Keever (an eighth-grade social-studies teacher).
Despite her agreement, Rice didn’t let Keever — or any of the other commissioners — off the hook. He accused them all of not pushing hard enough for such reforms: “You’re going to the wedding … and walking down the aisle [with these promises], but it ain’t producing nothing,” said Rice. He urged commissioners to lobby more forcefully for improvements in education.
Commissioner candidate Gerald Dean seconded that recommendation, during his comments.
Then Don Yelton, a candidate for chair of the Board of Commissioners, remarked: “I must be slipping. I didn’t include education on my [list of] 15 issues.” But one issue that does appear, he noted, is, “Keep [the air agency] an autonomous board.” Yelton also urged commissioners to find creative ways to get business more involved in the county’s recycling program.
Other public-comment speakers included Keith Cordell, who repeated his request that prayer and the Ten Commandments be brought back into the schools, and Hazel Fobes, who urged a regional approach to improving air quality in Buncombe County.