“A substation is usually not the subject of a tourist photo.”
— Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun
“We don’t want to play it too safe, because we will lose out to other regions. We need to be willing to gamble; we need to approach [economic development] with a percentage mentality,” local business owner Robert Dunn told the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners at their Aug. 3 meeting. His company, Enterprise Solutions International, which relocated from Connecticut to Asheville in 2002, advises businesses looking for investors, acquisitions or merger opportunities. (Dunn told Xpress, “ESI fees are a mixture of retainer and success fees.”) The county, argued Dunn, should invest in somewhat risky businesses, knowing that even if just two in 10 succeed, it will still give the local economy a significant boost.
His remarks were part of a lengthy presentation, solicited by County Manager Wanda Greene, on what the county can do to encourage both high-tech startups and modernization of existing facilities. From time to time, Greene told Xpress, the county asks local experts to offer opinions “on efforts aimed at attracting business and … how we are working on job growth.”
Both Advantage West and the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council have made a good start, said Dunn, singling out BREC Director Jim Roberts for “getting us on the map and getting smart partners,” as well as for launching the Blue Ridge Angel Investor Network. Nonetheless, concluded Dunn, “We need to do much more.” The small-business incubator at A-B Tech’s Enka campus is a good start, he said, but “the county and city should work on a closer-in space” given the lack of pubic transportation to the Enka facility.
“Are you starting to see high-tech companies wanting to get started here?” queried Commissioner David Young.
“Yes,” said Dunn, “and others wanting to come here. We need to find capital.”
Commissioner Patsy Keever asked, “How much capital are we talking about to get these kind of businesses off the ground?”
Dunn: “It can be several hundred thousand for a biological lab just to set up. A software company … can get going with less money.”
Keever: “You suggested an incubator closer to town for this. How much space? Do you mean office space?”
Dunn: “Think cubbyhole.”
Chairman Nathan Ramsey wondered why the capital has to be local if an entrepreneur has a great idea.
“This kind of money likes to be close to development,” Dunn explained. “Angel investors like easy phone calls and face-to-face meetings. I’m in touch with institutional investors across the state, and they aren’t interested in an enterprise until there is already $2 million to $3 million invested in the business.”
Ramsey commended Dunn on his report and asked that a follow-up on possible “next steps” be delivered to the county manager.
Telephone Systems Analyst Doug Reynolds, who’s responsible for maintaining the county’s communications network, was presented with a Ketner Employee Productivity Award in a brief ceremony at the outset. Each year, the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners bestows the $1,000 awards, endowed by Food Lion co-founder Ralph Ketner, on 10 county employees in the state.
Reynolds’ contribution was to notice that the fiber-optic cables digitally networking county offices could handle far more information than was actually flowing. Meanwhile, the county was leasing lines from BellSouth to handle phone traffic. By switching the phone and fax traffic to the existing fiber-optic network, Reynolds saved the county $32,000 during the last fiscal year — and as he told the board, “That number is increasing.”
Reynolds will receive his check during a formal ceremony later this month.
Ramsey asked Reynolds how many phones he’s responsible for. Reynolds replied, “It keeps growing; about 1,800.”
After commending Reynolds for the fine job he’s doing, Ramsey added, “If you had been working for Richard Nixon on his phone lines, he wouldn’t have run into those problems.” Amid general laughter, Ramsey continued, “I figured you Democrats would appreciate that.”
Facing down the terrorist threat
Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun (who’s also the mayor of Woodfin) offered a homeland-security update. The good news, he said, is that Buncombe County is not on orange alert. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t taking steps to prepare. Law-enforcement agencies have been looking at critical facilities — government buildings, power plants, substations and water-treatment plants.” VeHaun encouraged county residents to be aware if they saw someone taking photos of local infrastructure, noting, “A substation is usually not the subject of a tourist photo.”
“As of today,” he reported, “The county has received a little over $5 million [in Homeland Security funding] since 2002.” That money has been used to buy equipment and foster regional cooperation on health, fire protection and the handling of hazardous materials.
“Do you work with all of the departments in the area?” asked Keever.
VeHaun: “We have the Buncombe County Terrorism Task Force, and we meet with other counties.”
Keever: “Is funding going to other, more rural counties?”
VeHaun: “As far as I know, yes. I would presume they are following something like the same procedures with other counties.”
Ramsey: “I’m impressed by how well you work with other government entities. Our citizens ought to be really proud that there aren’t any turf battles — that security comes first.”
The taxman succeedeth
Tax Director Gary Roberts reported that efforts to boost collections have been very successful. Collections have increased from 98.25 percent of taxes levied in fiscal year 2002-03 to 98.69 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30. (The state average is 97.03 percent.)
The increase, said Roberts, was achieved thanks to improved collection systems, such as monthly automatic checking-account debits. In addition, the department has saved money by improving its processing of certified mail and has increased foreclosures of abandoned property. Communication with taxpayers has also been improved, he said; giving taxpayers clearer information about assessments has resulted in fewer complaints.
The board formally approved Roberts’ report and re-authorized the department to collect taxes for the current fiscal year.
Dinner with the kids
@text: In other business, Keever presented a proclamation designating Friday, Sept. 27, as Buncombe County Family Day. Described as “a day to eat dinner with your children,” it’s intended to encourage parents to spend time with their kids as a way to reduce substance abuse and improve children’s health. The local event is part of National Family Day.
On a more contentious note, the board deadlocked over a vacancy on the Historic Resources Commission. Ramsey and Young supported Cheryl McMurray Shenaut; Keever and Stanley backed Allen Roderick (Commissioner David Gantt was on vacation).
Ramsey reminded his colleagues of the continuing need to increase participation by women in such groups; Keever (the only woman on the Board of Commissioners) countered that the gender balance on the HRC is “about even.” Roderick, a longtime local building contractor, has garnered awards from the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. Shenaut, a newcomer to WNC, told Xpress: “I ran a venture-capital fund for biotech companies in Oklahoma City. I was very active with business, civic, economic-development, preservation and art projects for the city.”
The decision was tabled until the commissioners’ Aug. 17 meeting.
But the commissioners did agree on appointments to three other county agencies: Mary Kincaid to the Land-of-Sky Regional Council’s Senior Volunteer Services Advisory Council; Nancy Schnepp and Mark Rosenstein, Tourism Development Agency; Pete Hodges and Sandy Stanford, Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee. The latter committee, noted Ramsey, still has three vacancies; he encouraged area residents interested in serving to contact the county at 250-4105.
The board then went into closed session to consider a pending legal matter, concluding the meeting in just under an hour.