News in brief: Job picture darker at low end, Upham honored

Pratt and Whitney turbine builder
LAND OF THE SKY-HIGH TECH: A new Pratt & Whitney manufacturing facility will build aerospace components in southern Buncombe County. Photo courtesy of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County

Job recovery lags for WNC’s poorest

At first glance, the Asheville metro area’s September unemployment rate of 7% looks like a sign of solid economic recovery: During May, in the wake of coronavirus-related shutdowns, Asheville-area unemployment was 16.1%, more than twice as high. But data compiled by Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit research project based at Harvard University, suggests that deep problems still remain for Western North Carolina’s lowest earners.

According to the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, the employment rate among Buncombe County workers making $27,000 or less per year was 30.2% lower in mid-September than at the start of 2020. That figure is up from its nadir in late April, when the county had 48.4% fewer low-wage jobs than in January. But by comparison, jobs making over $60,000 annually were down just 3.4% on the year as of Sept. 10, up from a maximum decrease of 21.3% in mid-April.

Trends are similar in Henderson County, for which only data on middle-wage ($27,000 to $60,000) and low-wage workers is available. As of Sept. 10, middle-wage employment was down only 1.6% from the start of the year, while low-wage jobs were down 26.2%.

That slow recovery for the region’s poorest continues as area rents creep ever higher. According to rental search website Apartment List, Asheville rents have increased by 2% since January, despite a national average rent decrease of 1.4% over the same period. The median one-bedroom apartment in Asheville now rents for $1,027 per month, with the median two-bedroom going for $1,361.

It’s not all bad news for the area’s affordability, however. Insurify, an industry website, recently reported that Asheville’s car insurance costs are the cheapest in the nation. The city’s annual insurance rates average $603, compared with a national average of $1,464.

Opioid response coordinator receives state award

Amy Upham’s work to reduce the harmful effects of opioid addiction and overdose has been recognized with a Dogwood Award from state Attorney General Josh SteinAccording to a press release, the awards “honor North Carolinians dedicated to keeping people safe, healthy and happy in their communities.”

As Buncombe County’s opioid response coordinator, Upham manages substance use disorder programs and coordinates initiatives to address the disorder across county departments and community organizations. Stein said Upham’s efforts “will go a long way in helping us fight back against the scourge of addiction.”

City passes business inclusion policy

For women- and minority-owned businesses, doing business with the city of Asheville has been an uphill climb, a 2018 study of the city’s contracting and purchasing practices revealed. Informed by those results, and in line with other initiatives to boost racial equity and social justice, members of City Council approved a business inclusion policy that will require bidders on city contracts to make substantive efforts to include women- and minority-owned subcontractors on their project teams.

According to a staff memo on the new policy, if a hypothetical bidder for a city project “does not perform outreach, in the form of good faith efforts, for each [minority- and woman-owned business enterprise] utilization goal,” purchasing officials may reject that bid “in favor of the next-lowest bidder who did meet the standard of responsiveness.”

The policy also requires the city to maintain an updated database of available small and minority- and women-owned businesses and provide certification, networking opportunities and workshops and training for those businesses. 

The new policy will go into effect Friday, Jan. 1.

Manufacturing facility coming in 2021

The cat is officially out of the bag: “Project Ranger,” the long-awaited, mysterious manufacturing project along the French Broad River, is the site of aerospace and defense contractor Pratt & Whitney’s new manufacturing facility

The Fortune 50 company is expected to invest $650 million through 2027, elected officials and business leaders announced at an Oct. 22 event hosted by the Asheville-Buncombe Economic Development Coalition. At full buildout, the facility will support 800 new jobs with an average wage of $68,000; hiring is set to begin in late 2021. A partnership with A-B Tech will provide residents with skills and training to enter the industry.

Pratt & Whitney’s announcement marks the largest new jobs investment in Western North Carolina history. According to a statement from the N.C. Department of Commerce, the project will be partially supported by a $15.5 million job development investment grant, disbursed over a 12-year period if the company meets job creation and investment targets. The site, located on Biltmore Farms property between the French Broad River, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Interstate 26, will be accessed by a yet-to-be constructed five-lane bridge that will cross the French Broad River near the N.C. Arboretum. North Carolina’s Golden LEAF Foundation has granted $12 million toward bridge construction costs.


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