Coal is no longer king in Appalachia, and the end of its reign has reverberated far beyond big suppliers such as Kentucky and West Virginia. Even Western North Carolina, which contains no commercially important coal deposits itself, has felt the economic effects of decreased production through the region.
According to Wendy Wasserman, communications director for the federally funded Appalachian Regional Commission, many communities in the area leaned on coal transportation and coal-mining machinery for their livelihoods.
“In Western North Carolina, there are manufacturers to support the coal supply chain through equipment, which took a hit as the market changed,” she explains.
That’s why one of the ARC’s latest Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization grants — better known as POWER grants — is coming to WNC. A $940,000 award, to be administered primarily by Asheville-based nonprofit Mountain BizWorks, will fund the newly created Growing Outdoors Partnership, which aims to boost sustainable job growth in the local outdoor gear and recreation industries.
Noah Wilson, project manager for the Growing Outdoors Partnership, says that an additional $787,000 in matching funds has been raised by companies and organizations set to benefit from the grant, bringing the total investment for the region’s economy to more than $1.7 million.
“This grant is about building that whole ecosystem of people and organizations that can help nurture companies that are starting here and encourage companies to come here,” Wilson says. “What this project really is is an example across Appalachia of what our regional and collaborative approach looks like to outdoor industry and the outdoor recreational assets that we have in our mountains as a good alternative driver to coal for our economies here.”
Power to the people
For some communities across Appalachia, Wilson explains, building an alternative to coal could mean investing in agriculture, technology or manufacturing. For Western North Carolina, with its abundance of state and national parks, it means a focus on outdoor gear and recreation.
“We’ve got an amazing amount of leaders in the outdoor recreation industry locally. That’s everything from outdoor gear, experiences and manufacturing, media and marketing organizations, all based here,” Wilson says. “We recognize that if we’re going to have an impact in all of the places in Western North Carolina, it has to fit whatever is happening in that place.”
In an October press release announcing the grant, Mountain BizWorks said that the project aims to produce more than 100 new jobs and encourage $10 million in new business investments over a five-year period.
To achieve this goal, the organization plans to collaborate with the Natural Capital Investment Fund, a small-business lender based in West Virginia, to create an $800,000 loan fund for rural outdoors companies. Additionally, a new business accelerator will provide mentorship and support for 10 of the region’s most promising outdoor entrepreneurs each year.
Mountain BizWorks will also work with Western Carolina University to match employers with industry professionals as the college implements new outdoor-focused degree programs funded by the grant.
While the Growing Outdoors Partnership looks toward Western North Carolina’s future, the investments have already started to pay off for some communities and businesses. “Just this week, Tsuga, which is a company in Boone, used some of the newly available loan funds that were a part of this grant program to start expanding their operations,” Wilson says. “They’re significantly increasing the amount of space that they have by adding 7,500 square feet to their manufacturing facility and creating 12 new jobs.”
Nick Spero, CEO of Asheville-based Fifth Element Camping and board member of the Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC, says the grant provides an opportunity to push Western North Carolina into the national spotlight as a premier supplier of products tailored to the region’s specific recreational activities, such as hiking, climbing and whitewater rafting.
“I believe it will bring new and established brands to our area to manufacture and test their outdoor gear products,” Spero says. “It will also help our current Outdoor Gear Builders members expand and create local manufacturing connections, which ultimately means growth and jobs.”
Amy Allison, marketing manager for Eagle’s Nest Outfitters, an Asheville-based company that specializes in outdoor hammocks, says the inclusion of many business owners in the Growing Outdoors project will encourage collaboration and idea sharing, which she hopes will lead to increased production.
“We have a very supportive community that is great for small business, and you can’t compete with what our area offers for outdoor enthusiasts and athletes,” Allison says. “Those things combined make this area ideal for any business owner looking for a thriving outdoor community to sink roots into and grow their outdoor business.”
Taking the lead
Although outdoor recreation is the top economic driver for Growing Outdoors, Wilson says grant funds will not be directly used for environmental activities such as conservation or cleanup efforts. However, he suspects that the economic benefits of the industry will encourage residents and business owners to see the value in protecting the area’s natural spaces.
“These companies and the people who are a part of this collaboration and partnership — we all believe in protecting wild places,” Wilson says. “That’s why we do what we do, to be able to be outside and enjoy them. I think the outdoor industry as a whole is getting a lot more conscious of this need for shared stewardship.”
Lauren Rash, chief operating officer for Fletcher-based Diamond Brand Gear Co., an outdoor gear and mountain lifestyle manufacturer, says she looks forward to the opportunity to rebrand Western North Carolina as a destination that rivals well-known outdoor recreation areas out West.
“A lot of folks think of outdoor industry as being in the West Coast and in the Rocky Mountains. Folks don’t always think of us as being a leader in that, but we actually have been, and have quite diverse mountain ranges and expertise to make gear that works in this climate and in the drier climates,” Rash says. “We know about it because we live and breathe it every day, but we’re focused on letting folks from around the country know about it too.”
Wilson says he expects that the recent grant, coupled with everything that Asheville and Western North Carolina has to offer, could push the region to become the epicenter of outdoor industry along the East Coast.
“We have a competitive advantage. We have to keep rolling; we can’t stop pedaling now,” Wilson says. “If we’re in front right now, we have to keep moving to establish that sense of leadership and to help others come up with us in the Appalachian region. It has to be a diverse industry, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity here.”