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Asheville has unique strengths, challenges to adding new businesses, better jobs

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8/29/2011 - Asheville has unique strengths, challenges to adding new businesses, better jobs
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times

A good commentary on the economy in general, and some bright spots of growth in the Asheville and surrounding areas.

 

 I've noticed lately how people bring up the "economy" in casual conversation the same way they might say "the enemy."

 You can't blame them. They were planning new business ventures or buying a bigger home for their family, but then the economy turned on them with a vengeance, wiping out their jobs and 401(k) savings, forcing foreclosures and bankruptcies. 

 Economists insist the Great Recession ended back in 2009. People shake their heads, wondering why it doesn't feel like a recovery two years later.

But one local economist argues maybe you ought to tune out all the bad news about the U.S. economy and concentrate on what's happening closer to home.

"The economy is right here," Tom Tveidt said recently at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce's Metro Economy Outlook. "Our economy is different from Hickory or Greenville. Here is the economy you can understand and you can impact."

And he's right. That big bad U.S. economy can be broken down into 372 metropolitan areas, each with a differing rate of recovery from the recession.

Thankfully, Asheville is growing, slowly adding jobs -- just not at a pace that makes anyone happy. But slow growth is still better than the 100 other or so communities that are still losing jobs, Tveidt said.

Solar bright spot

For instance, Asheville boasts one business that is exploding like a supernova. Not many companies nationwide have seen revenues rising by 4,300 percent over the past three years, but FLS Energy has done just that, tapping into the endless, affordable energy of the sun.

That financial feat landed FLS Energy at 46th in the nation in Inc. magazine's list of the 500 fastest-growing companies. FLS Energy is the only North Carolina company that made this year's list. Asheville outscored Research Triangle Park, for a change.

FLS Energy started five years ago when three entrepreneurs saw that solar power was at last ripe for the picking. They've since grown to 80 employees, and each week they're posting five or six new openings, said Michael Shore, a co-founder and CEO. Shore looks to add probably 40 more workers next year.

"Asheville is an incredibly supportive community to grow a green business," Shore said. "We have received advice and assistance from Mountain BizWorks to the chamber, to RBC Bank and Self-Help Credit Union."

Asheville could certainly use more companies and job makers like FLS Energy

To that end, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, under new CEO Kit Kramer, has launched Asheville 5x5, an ambitious plan to generate 5,000 new jobs over the next five years in five key job sectors: health care, advanced manufacturing, science and technology, arts and culture, and knowledge-based entrepreneurs. The chamber is halfway toward its $3 million goal in a fundraising campaign to support those job-creation efforts.

What makes us different?

Asheville likes to think of itself as unique, as "anyway you like it," and "keeping it weird," according to our popular bumper stickers and tourism campaigns. But Tveidt says there's more truth than hype to that idea.

Asheville is more than just a pretty place to visit for people who want to take in downtown, tour the Biltmore House, drive the Parkway for a weekend, then return home to the big city and their real jobs.

Industries used to flock here for water and other natural resources, cheap labor and energy. But then too many went chasing after even cheaper labor overseas over the past 20 years, and the area has seen thousands of jobs lost with the closing of many textile, furniture and electronics factories.

Yet advanced manufacturing is very much alive and thriving in the Asheville area, offering good wages for those workers with the necessary skills.

Chamber officials point proudly to the entrepreneur Jim Oliver, the first graduate of the small-business incubator at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. Oliver had an idea to build a satellite antenna dish for mobile television broadcasts. From a one-man operation, he built a company that now employs 170 employees who manufacture advanced communications devices used by the Department of Defense, the White House and other top clients.

We still make things here in the mountains, and the chamber needs to do more to spread that news.

We're basically competing against a lot of communities nationwide, often willing to pay millions of dollars to bid for a new auto or aviation plant. It makes more sense if we can cultivate more homegrown businesses like Shore's FLS Energy or Oliver's AvL Technologies.

What are our assets?

You don't associate Asheville with cutting-edge research in science and technology as in Silicon Valley or Boston or even Research Triangle Park, but think about the weather and the environment, and we have some advantages.

The National Climatic Data Center, with its vast databases of worldwide weather records, is a treasure trove for research into how climate change could affect business and society in the decades to come. Scientists and data visualization specialists are starting to migrate here to some high-paying positions to explore that data.

The N. C. Arboretum, along with the Bent Creek Institute, offers more than a stroll through pretty gardens, but scientific research into the region's biodiversity. The plants that grow in abundance in the wild could offer tomorrow's treatments for cancer and other diseases.

As manufacturing has lost jobs over the decades, health care has stepped in to fill the gap.

Mission Health System is, of course, our largest area employer. With an aging population, health care will continue to offer job opportunities for physicians and specialists, nurses and aides.

Arts and culture have often been an afterthought, economically speaking. But for generations, crafters have made good livings in pottery, quilts, glass and other creations that bring top dollar.

Thinking of culture, what comes to mind is not just art galleries but Asheville as a Foodtopia. We have a local cuisine with the cornucopia of produce, meats, eggs, cheese and other foods raised on local farms.

With food goes drink. The Wall Street Journal marked Asheville as the new destination for breweries.

Those are the obvious assets we already enjoy.

But Tveidt pointed to interesting concentrations of highly skilled jobs in our backyard we might not think about. We rank second in the nation for occupational therapy aides. We're third for landscape architects. We're fifth for pharmacy aides.

Critical mass in those occupations could drive new business opportunities.

Unfortunately, Asheville is different from many other communities in that most workers earn lower wages here.

There's no great secret to increasing those wages, Tveidt said.

"You are what you make," Tveidt said.

Those communities that can design, manufacture and market higher-value products such as satellite dishes, cutting-edge software, vehicles, medical devices and other items will pay people more.

We need to make more things here in Asheville and Western North Carolina, and market those products better to a larger world that knows us only for the beauty of our mountains.

A new mantra

For years now, we've been holding our breath, waiting for a recovery that never seems to come, waiting for the economy to get better so our jobs will be more secure, or we'll might finally get a raise, or even a better job. We keep waiting on politicians and leaders in Washington and Raleigh to do something to fix the economy. We might be waiting a long time.

I recently heard Emoke B'Racz of Malaprop's Bookstore talk about the future of bookselling at the recent gathering of the N.C. Writers Conference in Swannanoa.

It's all about buying local, B'Racz argued. You have a choice, to go cheap and buy from China, or to invest your dollars in your community.

I like that idea. Buying local has been a mantra in our community for years now. What goes for books goes for local produce and the beer you buy. It goes for local services for your business or the parts for your new product.

Now, we need a new mantra: Build it local. We need to build more solar panel arrays, more satellite receivers. Make something of value for your community and you will be rewarded.

It's our economy, after all. We can't wait for someone else to fix it for us.

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