• Telecommuting links Asheville to the world
• Weather/climate-data firms flourish
• Natural healing and organics
Predicting the future is always dicey, but trying to figure out where Asheville’s economy will be in 2027 is akin to herding cats, with so many variables that can suddenly zig when you expect them to zag, local economists and business people say.
Markets change. Skilled work forces wax and wane. New, unforeseen technologies emerge. Regional, national and global developments can lay waste to the most skillful projections. Once-dominant industries, such as manufacturing, can wither and struggle to survive. And that’s just for starters.
“Twenty years is awful far to look out,” says Tom Tveidt, director of the Asheville Metro Business Research Center. “The economy is all about people’s perceptions, and … I get sweaty palms when you project out more than a couple of years.”
Twenty years ago, for example, Asheville was just beginning to emerge from a prolonged period of blight and economic malaise. Apart from a few visionaries, most residents would have found it difficult to imagine the vibrant, bustling city that exists today.
But while local economic experts hesitate to get too specific about Asheville’s economic future, they’re pretty clear about what they don’t foresee: a return to the bad old days. Indeed, while the details may remain murky, Asheville appears poised for more boom times ahead, they say.
A new geek mecca?
“It’s all about the people moving into the area,” says Tveidt, asserting that local growth is being driven largely by a wave of baby-boomer retirees. Besides bringing wealth with them that pumps up the local economy and may also be invested locally, their presence will continue to help drive the area’s thriving health-care industry, already a dominant sector, he notes.
Tourism, meanwhile, will also continue to be a major force well into the future, adds Tveidt. Together, these three vectors drive both commercial and residential construction, and that potent combination should continue to spur positive growth for many years to come, he predicts.
Already, growing numbers of software designers, architects, engineers and others, drawn by Asheville’s charm and the area’s natural beauty, are able to make homes here while working for clients around the globe. Continuing technological advances, Tveidt maintains, will enable more young and middle-aged professionals to move here to start or run businesses.
Technology will also play a vital role in resurrecting manufacturing locally, predicts Ray Denny, assistant vice president of economic development at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. Even as heavy manufacturing here is in its death throes, he notes, it’s being replaced by cleaner, smaller, technology-intensive manufacturers in such areas as aerospace, plastics, biotech and alternative energy. Denny cites the Asheville-based TransEco Energy Corp., whose recently opened facility in Arden converts conventional, gas-guzzling vehicles to run on cheaper, cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. Over the past two years, several other manufacturers have expanded or relocated here.
And while the area has been hurt in the past by the lack of a major research university that could help spur business creation, ever-more-powerful, high-bandwidth communications technology is bringing such facilities as the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the universities around the Research Triangle Park as close as your modem. That means we can expect to see more small companies and entrepreneurs putting down roots in the mountains, according to Tveidt.
“We’re seeing our IT sector [and] our media-arts sector grow very substantially,” says Denny, adding that the area is also poised to become a hub for alternative-energy firms and other green businesses. “I think that’s going to continue to happen. There also is a widespread enthusiasm—and I think justified—to grow our weather/climate sector … by at least hundreds of jobs in the next 20 years.”
Asheville is home to the National Climatic Data Center, and for the past few years, the Chamber and other groups have been encouraging weather-related firms to relocate here. Denny says he’s confident their work is on the verge of paying off. David Brown, acting director of the HUB Project, agrees. “I see us as a worldwide center for the [commercial] application of climatalogical data,” he says.
Both men also envision the area becoming even more of a hot spot for natural healing and associated products, including the production of medicinal herbs and organic foods. “I see us going forward to the past,” says Brown, “once again becoming a center for rejuvenation, for the renewal of the mind, the body and, indeed, the spirit.” In addition, Brown believes the area will continue to gain momentum as an internationally renowned arts-and-crafts center—not just traditional forms, “but cutting-edge art.”
Local entrepreneur and futurist David McConville foresees a golden future too. But all those predictions could come to naught if we don’t fully tap the potential of present and future area residents and protect the area’s precious natural assets, he warns.
“Either we set a template for how societies can be structured in relocalized economies and succeed that way, or else we become basically another Dollywood,” says McConville. “We either fully engage our capacities internally as entrepreneurs and innovators to understand sustainable energy generation, local food production, increased coherence of our community infrastructures (including community media) to tap into the collective creativity and abilities of people in our region—or we run the risk of becoming just an outpost for gated communities and people wealthy enough to have second houses and million-dollar condos.”