Twenty years ago, Sen. Martin Nesbitt spearheaded an initiative that aimed to make sure Western North Carolina wasn’t ignored when it came to bringing money, industry and jobs to the region. That initiative was the nonprofit agency Advantage West Economic Development Group, which covered a 23-county area, helped bring companies like Linamar and Sierra Nevada to WNC, worked with the film industry and set up the Blue Ridge Food Ventures program. But two years ago, state legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory announced the creation of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.
“The [N.C.] General Assembly decided to go with a model that’s … centralized and managed out of Raleigh,” says Tom Alexander, Advantage West board president, of the new agency.
Along with the new model came a reduction in state funding and then, last July, a total cut. The agency also lost director Scott Hamilton last summer when he became the new president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based, 13-state Appalachian Regional Commission.
“It’s honestly a challenge for Advantage West and the other six [similar, regional] partnerships in North Carolina,” says Alexander. “We’ve had to go back and re-evaluate all of our programs and [determine] what’s most effective for WNC.”
Both Alexander and Kathi Petersen, Advantage West’s interim director of operations, say the agency is committed to keeping its strongest programs alive by relying on partnerships, federal contracts, grants and other revenue, such as the co-packaging fees paid by BRFV participants.
One component has already been lost: the WNC Film Commission. Although Asheville was recently named the No. 1 town in the U.S. for living and working as a moviemaker, and the region boasts a long list of films made here (from the historic Thunder Road to The Last of the Mohicans, Patch Adams, The Hunger Games and the soon-to-be-released Masterminds), the Advantage West board decided to relinquish control to the N.C. Film Commission based in Raleigh, Petersen reports. As of December 2014, a 25 percent state incentive for film, commercials and other projects is gone, she says, “and that is having an effect.”
Alexander says he hopes legislators will revive some or all of the incentive, but “going forward, it will be hard to attract [companies and projects] without it.”
A few weeks ago, Advantage West completed the transfer of files — including an extensive database of locations and available crews — to the N.C. Film Commission.
A new initiative, on the other hand, highlights the agency’s focus in recent years on smaller companies and entrepreneurs: Scale Up WNC, funded by a five-year, $1.2 million contract with the U.S. Small Business Administration, provides support to 30 entrepreneurs each year to “help expand growth-oriented businesses and strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem across the region.” Alexander calls it a “natural fit” for WNC and for Advantage West, which also has an ongoing loan program for startups.
Advantage West is one of just eight entities participating in Scale Up programs across the country, Petersen adds.
But what will happen to other initiatives? As an agribusiness incubator, Blue Ridge Food Ventures has been a key resource for about 250 startups and other small companies since 2005, such as the jam-making, family-owned Imladris Farms. BRFV has a revenue stream from those who use its commercial kitchen and packing services, so that helps in ensuring its future, but that’s not enough to make it self-sustaining just yet, Petersen notes.
“We’ve closed the [funding] gap considerably in recent years,” says Alexander, “and we’re doing everything we can to make it a break-even venture.”
Nonetheless, the regional agency’s changing status presents a challenge. “We seem to be reverting back to pre-1994,” says Alexander of the move to centralize business recruitment in the state. The way forward for the agency will rely on its staff and regional partnerships, he says. “Advantage West was [created] to help enhance economic development in the rural areas of our state, [and] it’s evidence of regionalism at work.”
MORE INFO: advantagewest.org