Better health care, getting Google and taking tourism to “the viral world” were all topics of discussion at a meeting today between the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and city officials.
“The relationship with the Chamber is a great one and what it does for the community is tremendous,” City Council member Jan Davis said at the beginning of the meeting, before the assembled officials went on to discuss the city’s economic situation and their joint efforts to improve it.
According to Ben Teague, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition, the metro area lost 6,100 jobs from November 2008 to November 2009, but the area’s unemployment rate over that time, at 8.6 percent, is still lower than the state rate of 10.6 percent. He also said that about 2,000 jobs are being added by a variety of companies.
“Health care and private education have stayed positive throughout the recession. Most of the other sectors of the economy have been fairly negative,” Teague said. “It’s a pretty diverse expansion. Most of it’s driven by technology — you’ll see call centers, distribution.”
The Tourism Development Authority has initiatives of its own, among them a $1.6 million wayfinding project intended to add signs to make downtown more navigable. The city contributed about $160,000 to the initiative.
“This way, instead of people with Ohio license plates ending up at the drum circle and going, ‘Where am I?’ they’ll go, ‘Oh, there’s a parking deck,” chamber Executive Vice President (and former Council member) Kelly Miller told the assembled officials.
The TDA’s also looking to improve Asheville’s tourism in sports, off-peak months and weddings, as well as working on smart-phone applications to help.
“We’re focusing on Web 3.0 apps to help people navigate downtown, to help with social networking,” Miller said. “We want a voice screaming in the viral world: Come to Asheville.”
Getting one of Google’s proposed super-fast broadband networks was another hot topic of conversation, as the city and the Chamber are planning to cooperate in making their pitch
“We’re getting all these calls from people saying, ‘Hey, I know someone in Google, let me help,’ so we’re tracking all the different ones down, having conference calls,” Teague said. “We’ve asked Hunter Goosmann [of ERC Broadband] to spearhead this. We talk daily, nearly multiple times a day about it. He has a meeting Thursday with a Google official to get his opinion about where our presentation should go.”
Teague said more information will be revealed on Friday, when officials from the chamber, the city and the AdvantageWest regional-economic group meet to “decide how we can represent the city in the best way. There are some conflicting thoughts on whether a WNC application or a city of Asheville application. But it’s definitely a great potential for the Asheville area.”
“All the professionals are working on this,” City Manager Gary Jackson said. “The important thing is that we get this for the region, then we can work out the exact details.”
Council member Gordon Smith said that a grassroots effort is ready to assist with the Google effort.
“I know there are folks who are independent of any of these groups, who are very excited about it, who are kind of waiting to hear from somebody what the most effective way is to activate this grassroots energy,” Smith said. “If you communicate with all of us as you become more aware, we can help get that rolling.”
On the equally hot-button issue of health care, Chamber President Rick Lutovsky said that Buncombe is ground zero for an experiment in state law that allows associations to join together to craft health-care plans, something the city is also interesting in joining.
“We’re getting together with doctors, lawyers, not-for-profits. This legislation allows one area in the state to do this,” Lutovsky said. “While others could jump in, none are as far along as we are. We are the experiment. In a nutshell, if large employers pool together, it gives an opportunity for small employers to get discounted health care. If anything happens at the national level, we could be at the forefront of that.”
The state has set a December deadline for applications.
Mayor Terry Bellamy handed out copies of the city’s strategic plan and said she welcomed future cooperation between the city and the Chamber.
“We’re all for coming together to decide what we want to come on, what we want to accomplish this year, especially for our state and federal legislative priorities as well as ongoing big-picture items,” Bellamy said. “We’re trying to be as effective as possible within our resources.”
— David Forbes, staff writer