Charting the future

photo by Jonathan Welch

Kit Cramer came on board as the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO last fall. Xpress sat down with her recently along with Ben Teague, the Chamber’s senior vice president for economic development. They discussed the organization’s new long-term strategic plan for business development as well as the controversy over the Asheville group’s retaining its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (see sidebar, “Pro-business or Partisan?”). Here are highlights from the interview. To see a video or read the complete transcript, visit mountainx.com.

Mountain Xpress: As a newcomer to Western North Carolina, what’s your impression of small-business development here?
Kit Cramer:
We’re a community of small businesses, so it’s absolutely critical that we support small businesses in every way we can. Tomorrow [March 9], we’re actually leaving for a legislative visit to Raleigh, along with Henderson and Haywood counties. One of the things we’re promoting is trying to improve tax reform.

You’ve outlined several areas of growth that you think are particularly important. Could you take me through those quickly?
K.C.:
We’ve developed a business model for how we’re going to approach economic development, and we involved 150 folks in this discussion. We’re going to be looking at industry clusters. So basically…

When you say 150 folks, are these businesspeople?
K.C.:
Businesspeople, community people — a broad cross section of the community. When the search committee hired me, there was real interest in having more volunteer involvement and more involvement from a broader base of the community, so as we were embarking on this strategic plan, we saw this as a great opportunity to do both.

We’re looking at industry clusters. One is health care: One of our largest employers, Mission Hospitals, is in the health-care sector. The other quadrants are: advanced manufacturing, technology and science, and arts and culture.

So we’re talking about existing businesses that we need to grow, as well as ways to capitalize on the clusters that are already here. We’ve talked about an overarching approach of trying to use Asheville’s quality of life as a selling tool. The beauty of this area makes this a place where people want to locate, and there’s a balance to life here that is extremely appealing.

In terms of technology, for example, we’ve got a broadband ring that exists here because of the presence of the National Climatic Data Center. That makes us a very appealing location for other types of technology firms, and those firms can locate anywhere.

Let’s look a little more closely at some of those areas. What do you mean by “advanced manufacturing”?
K.C.:
We have a great presence of manufacturers working with high-value metals, using laser cutters, and they’re doing very intricate work. We’ve talked about building that particular segment of the economy. That’s just one example.

Ben Teague: Just to flesh that out a little bit: Unison Engine Components, GE Aviation, BorgWarner and ThermoFisher Scientific all work with really expensive metals and materials. This is the type of area that we want to go after, particularly because we’re actually 12 times more specialized in those type of high-end metalworking skills than the rest of the nation, so we have the ability to attract other companies.

Right, and I’m assuming that in order to do that, you need help from a lot of different people, including City Council, existing small businesses and larger ones. Most of the businesses you mentioned are fairly large, and it seems like there’s some overlap between manufacturing and technology. So, specifically, how are you going after some of these businesses?
K.C.:
Let me give you one other example. In many of these clusters, we’ve heard repeatedly that there’s a need for venture capital, so we talked with the folks who were sitting around the table and [told them] we visit with site selectors all the time to pitch Asheville as a [business] location. Should we visit venture-capital firms? And can we take along some of our existing entrepreneurs who have made a decision to locate in Asheville to give a testimonial?

When we talked to the people around the table, they said they’d be more than willing to do that, so it’s then going to be incumbent upon us to identify which firms specialize in the areas that we’re interested in pursuing, and identify people who can tell the best stories to come along with us, and schedule those trips.

It’s a lot of small activity that leads to creating an environment here to grow business, and we outlined strategies for every one of these areas. So we’re now in the process of putting a timeline and a budget to those strategies, because we need to raise between $3 million and $3.5 million at a minimum to provide funding for the next five years.

The recession is still with us, and we’ve all had budget cuts. So where are you going to find this money?
K.C.:
That is the challenge, and we need to start thinking about dedicated revenue sources. I’m not sure that right now is the appropriate time to be thinking about any new revenue sources. We’re probably going to have to make do with what we have and what we can raise in the next year or so. But as the economy improves, perhaps there will be opportunities. We’ve talked about selling a vanity tag in support of economic development: Could we generate several hundred thousand dollars off that?

You mean a specialized license plate? Like “Protect the Blue Ridge Parkway,” but…
K.C.:
Right. Could we do an Asheville-oriented tag that would then provide some additional funds for us to use in marketing this community? We need some bucks to get more creative in what we’re doing to promote business growth. I’m open to new ideas, and I’ve asked a lot of businesspeople to put their thinking caps on and help us arrive at some different ways. We’re going to be using a more traditional approach right now, which is to build a strategic plan and ask [the] business [sector] to invest in it.

What’s the Chamber’s membership right now?
K.C.:
My last count was 1,973, which makes us the third-largest chamber in the state. We’re very proud of that number and hope to see it go above 2,000.

Anything else you want to address?
B.T.:
We track the economy by different sectors, and … in January of last year, just about every sector of the economy was losing jobs. … Now almost every sector is either break-even or positive — including manufacturing, which is interesting because that particular sector has been losing for several years. So if nothing else, this particular graph makes me bullish on our future.

— Asheville-based freelance writer Anne Fitten Glenn can be reached at annefittenglenn@gmail.com.

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