There will be no sprawling gross domestic product formulas, no talk of equilibrium pricing and absolutely no supply-and-demand curve sketches at the inaugural Bringing It Home economic conference. Instead, the interactive forum will explore cutting-edge opportunities for strengthening Western North Carolina’s economy, making the oft-daunting topic of collective prosperity intelligible, applicable and, dare we say it, enjoyable for presenters and attendees alike.
‘It is us’
“I’d just like us to take a different look at the economy,” says Jane Hatley, event organizer and Self-Help Credit Union’s regional director for WNC. “People tend to think of the economy as something separate from them and not see their own role in it. … A healthier economy would be one where everybody realizes that ‘it is us’ instead of waiting for a big company to come charging in on a white horse to create jobs.”
Expect Hatley’s “it is us” mantra to echo within the Haynes Center at A-B Tech’s Enka campus on event day, because, she says, fostering a self-starting mentality is paramount to the conference’s success and Asheville’s future. And keep in mind that the “us” includes individuals from all backgrounds and financial statuses.
“It’s not just the 1 percent — it’s everyone,” Hatley says. “If we don’t all work together to raise up everybody, then we’re not a healthy economy. Our economy includes low-income, minorities and the people who are suffering, who are homeless. A better economy has to come by looking at everything.”
The other L word
Hatley says the tourist-driven nature of WNC’s economy makes independent businesses integral to collective success, particularly when it comes to quality job creation.
“For the most part, small businesses are the ones keeping the economy afloat,” she says of the Asheville landscape. “We want to stress the importance of local — investing local, buying local, making choices in how you do your consumer spending so that you help your local economy.”
In the absence of conscientious, directed spending, Hatley fears the cost of living in Asheville could spiral upward into a realm that’s only feasible for vacationers and high-income individuals. And while there’s nothing wrong with brunching among Floridians, the concerned mother hopes future generations of locals will be able to afford the city’s amenities too. At the very least, she hopes for their greater financial stability in the near future.
“There’s something wrong with the lack of jobs for young people,” Hatley says. “Asheville should not be a place that wealthy people can come and retire to, or wealthy tourists can come and enjoy, while we still have people here who are struggling to live.”
Luckily, Ashevilleans have ample opportunity to support the companies that help prevent such outcomes, according to Hatley.
“There are major things that individual citizens can do,” she says. “They can shop locally. If they have a small business, they can source locally, and they can work with a local distributor so that they’re helping their neighbors. They can also choose to put their money in a local investment vehicle so that they know the money is going back into the community.”
Conference keynote speaker Ed Whitfield is a firebrand, Hatley says: “He’s just great at throwing you off and challenging assumptions about the economy.” And Whitfield drives home the issue of diversity and calls for grassroots approaches. “He’ll be great,” she says.
Whitfield, co-founder and co-managing director of the Greensboro-based Fund for Democratic Communities, spoke about alternatives to the trickle-down approach to economic growth at the New Economy Coalition conference in Boston last year and blew Hatley away, she says.
“When the market fails, why should local agencies guarantee the profitability of an enterprise to an individual, through subsidies, in hopes that a social benefit trickles down?” asks Whitfield in a teaser for his speech. “Why not subsidize a community group directly to build sustainable cooperative entities that directly meet their needs?”
Although Hatley has sworn him to secrecy on details, Whitfield has revealed that the presentation will explore the aforementioned issues “with both clarity and humor.”
“I don’t want to give it away, because it’s really good,” he adds.
Making a day of it
Hatley, who has attended summits about new economic models across the nation, hopes to utilize the insights she’s garnered to show how infrastructure and development projects elsewhere could be applied to a host of different industries locally.
“It’s connecting dots,” she says, adding that the launch of minority-owned companies in a poor area of Cleveland by the city’s Evergreen Cooperative offered her a particularly poignant lesson.
“What inspired me about their story was that the anchor institutions in town came together to create living-wage jobs in low-income neighborhoods by helping to create worker-owned co-ops that then supplied the [city’s] anchor institutions. So, they set up local supply chains while also building ownership and wealth for low-income folks, and they did it in a green way.”
To prevent the day from becoming a series of soapbox sessions, Hatley’s team has arranged a smorgasbord of speakers, breakfast and lunch breaks (with cupcakes donated by Short Street Cakes), a business simulation involving audience participation and a ball of yarn, plenty of raffle prizes and an evening networking reception with various local business-service and investment entities and — you guessed it — local beer, donated by Catawba Brewing Co. and Southern Appalachian Brewery.
It’s clear that Hatley intends the conference to lay a groundwork for economic progress between sips and giggles.
“We’re talking about our own lives here,” she says. “We’re talking about the lives that we hope to build for our children. I hope some light bulbs go off.”
WHAT: Entrepreneurs, investors, nonprofit workers, business professionals and all other interested individuals are invited to attend the Bringing It Home economic conference.
WHERE: The Haynes Center at A-B Tech’s Enka campus
WHEN: Wednesday, March 18, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
TICKETS: $30 for general admission and $25 for students.
MORE INFO & RESERVATIONS: bringingithomewnc.org