If COVID-19 has taught Western North Carolina’s business leaders one thing, it’s the importance of diversification. That’s the takeaway offered by Christopher Chung, CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, a nonprofit private-public partnership that supports commercial growth throughout the state.
At a Dec. 17 webinar hosted by EDPNC, Chung addressed the continued impacts of the pandemic while encouraging local leaders that the economic forecast may not be completely gloomy. “If all of the region’s eggs are in one basket, it’s a tough spot to be in,” he said. “There’s a long way to go to help the tourism economy recover, but the fact that the region continues to diversify gives us good reason to be more economically resilient the next time we face something like this.”
Businesses in Western North Carolina have shown extreme resilience during the pandemic, Chung continued. But to survive another pandemic, natural disaster or environmental catastrophe and position the region for future growth, industry leaders must look to emerging markets, customer bases and supply chains, he said.
Chung pointed to Buncombe County’s recent deal with aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney as a successful negotiation with long-term regional impacts. Panelist Nathan Ramsey, executive director of the Land of Sky Regional Council, also pointed to Jabil Health Care’s expansion in Henderson County as a major draw for the region.
“Often, when you compare our region to the Triangle or Charlotte, we get the economic development crumbs,” Ramsey said. “But that’s not what we’ve seen lately. We truly have a diversified economy with advanced manufacturing, health care, construction, skilled trade, the growing IT sector — we’re not only the tourism sector people perceive us to be.”
Industrial Opportunities Inc. of Andrews is one manufacturing facility to pivot, said President and CEO Tom O’Brien, a webinar panelist. The company, which hires adults with disabilities from Cherokee, Graham and Clay counties, began producing surgical masks in the spring.
Cherokee County is lucky to have a high percentage of manufacturing, retail and hospitality jobs, O’Brien noted, but workforce training, access to broadband and affordable housing must be addressed before major industrial expansion can occur. “This pandemic has shown that we have to take care of our most important asset, which is our employees,” he said.
When retail stores began closing in March, Marshall-based kombucha brewery Buchi launched a new contactless delivery system to bring fermented products directly to customers, explained co-CEO Zane Adams. The shift in operations led the company’s leadership team to rethink the typical eight-hour work day to maximize productivity and adapt to remote work conditions.
“We’ve always been really connected to the community, but now, I think we’re trying to be more proactive about creating a plan for long-term success,” Adams said. “We’re thinking about how to build resiliency and how to build that into our workflow moving forward.”