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Planning ahead for Asheville area's jobs, roads and health care



1/17/2012 - Planning ahead for Asheville area's jobs, roads and health care
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times

Citizens in the many communities that make up Western North Carolina have no shortage of ideas about how to create jobs, or the need for better roads and schools, or the desire to protect our mountains, and air and water resources.

But a well-intentioned plan to bring more jobs to a community may not take into account the need for more apartments or affordable homes to house those workers, or better roads to take them to their jobs or haul their products out of the mountains to market.

Now communities and their leaders will get a chance to tally up all those visions and plans in a bigger vision to benefit more of the region.

Land of Sky Regional Council is kicking off GroWNC, a new initiative looking at growth and economic development and other issues across Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties. With a $1.6 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, local planners hope to compile a playbook over the next three years for local leaders wrestling with housing, transportation, jobs, energy, public health, and, of course, jobs.

From Hot Springs to Rosman, from Maggie Valley to Flat Rock and all points in between, citizens can tell planners what they would like to see happen in the coming years here at home.

The hard work starts at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Haynes Conference Center at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College's Enka campus. The meeting is open to the public. In fact, public comment is what planners are counting on, according to Joe McKinney, executive director of Land of Sky Regional Council. "This is really our opportunity to define ourselves and what we want in our region, rather than letting Washington or Raleigh define us," McKinney said. "The big goal, of course, is to have jobs for our kids and grandkids, and ways for them to get to those jobs. We want them to have places to hunt and fish and enjoy Western North Carolina in the ways we've come to love."

Land-of-Sky is not proposing a one-size-fits-all plan. What officials in Asheville need may not match the needs of officials in Hot Springs. "We hope to provide our local officials a tool kit to work on the important things they want to do in their communities."

At the first meeting, participants can participate in one of seven work groups, focused on housing, transportation, land use, economic development, energy, natural and cultural resources, and public health. These work groups will meet during the year, looking at existing plans, compiling new data and researching their study areas.

Municipal governments, nonprofits, housing authorities and other interested groups are already signing onto the GroWNC Consortium, sending representatives to the work groups, but these groups are open to any interested individuals

These aren't just pie-in-the-sky plans the groups are supposed to come up with. GroWNC plans two rounds of public comment, or "reality checks," during the year, McKinney explained. "Here's the opportunity for a citizen of WNC to say what's important to you. Without that public input, we've just wasted your tax dollars. The whole gist of this project is to hear from everyone to help define our future. "

You can point to several assets that it makes sense for our communities to build up. Gaia Herbs, outside Brevard, has hit a gold mine with the medicinal herbs native to our mountains, creating jobs along with products for the multimillion-dollar natural products industry. How we protect those lands growing those herbs while growing jobs will be crucial to the region's success. It also makes sense to look at getting better use of brownfields, those old industrial areas abandoned along our riverfront and elsewhere. Those sites could be turned into parks or even other commercial uses, rather than going out into the countryside and paving over a family farm, McKinney explained.

Jobs and environment and health and transportation are all different pieces to the same puzzle. We can't tackle one of those challenges without thinking hard about the rest of those issues.

The fact that WNC is one of only 45 regions nationwide to receive this funding makes McKinney and others excited about the potential for this large-scale planning. "I've been in this business for 22 years, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," McKinney said.

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