2/19/2013 - Multiplying Asheville's creative capital
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times
It all started with an Asheville contingent's trip to Austin, Texas. This mightily impressed a local arts entrepreneur, originally from Detroit, who helped coax a leading Brooklyn-based music producer to move to our mountains.
"It was serendipity. It's a typical Asheville story," Gar Ragland laughs, recounting just how he relocated his NewSong Music Group from the trendy culture capital of Brooklyn, N.Y., to join the growing creative class of downtown Asheville.
Ragland is no stranger to Western North Carolina, having grown up in Winston-Salem and attended Camp Rockmont in the summer. As a music entrepreneur, he had heard the buzz about Asheville even up in Brooklyn, where he heard more than one band say, "Oh yeah, we'd love to move down there."
Last April, Ragland was passing through town with one of his bands between gigs in Knoxville, Tenn., and Winston-Salem.
They ate lunch at the old Woolworth's on Haywood Street, and Ragland got out his iPhone and Google-mapped his way down to Echo Mountain Recording Studios and pressed the buzzer.
"Hey, I know who you are," answered Jessica Tomasin, Echo Mountain's studio manager.
She buzzed him into the studio complex -- housed in Asheville's original Salvation Army headquarters and the next-door Methodist church -- which has drawn such recording artists as the Avett Brothers, Grammy winners Zac Brown, T-Bone Burnett, and Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Tomasin knew Ragland from his work with the New Song songwriting competition held with National Public Radio, the programming he orchestrates at Lincoln Center, as well as the singer-songwriters he produces. Tomasin also knew she wanted to work with him.
Just that day, she had some office space open up in the studio, and she implored Ragland, "You have to move down here."
Courting the creative class
Better yet, Tomasin put Ragland in touch with the city's connector of entrepreneurs, Pam Lewis, who heads Venture Asheville.
Since moving down from Detroit 13 years ago and "never looking back," Tomasin has turned into an Asheville business booster. She readily admits to being a "economic development geek," eager to attend board meetings at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Coalition of Asheville-Buncombe County.
"I saw that the EDC had been down at South by Southwest, trying to push Asheville as a place for new technology. I was impressed that a city had the wherewithal to do that," Tomasin said.
She had just met with Lewis about the time Ragland showed up on her doorstep.
Ragland was sold when, a few weeks later, he met for lunch with Lewis, Ccamber officials, Sam Powers of the city of Asheville and other players on the local entrepreneurial scene.
"Sitting across the table from all these people, I was just so impressed as a small-business owner that Asheville was that interested in me."
One family, two businesses
By August, Ragland and his family had left Brooklyn and moved to Asheville, not with just one, but two businesses.
"We got a two-fer," Lewi s said.
Gar's wife, Meg Ragland, is an entrepreneur as well. A magazine writer and editor who took maternity time, she launched Plumprints with her cousin Carolyn Lanzetta.
The two young mothers were commiserating with each other about what to do with all the artwork their talented children brought home. "I had a drawer that was overflowing, and when I talked with other mothers, they had the same problem: 'Oh, I'd feel so guilty if I threw anything out,'" Meg explained.
They came up with the idea of digitizing all the colorful art and turning out coffee table books priced from $85 to about $400. Last week, while Gar Ragland was saluted by the Economic Development Coalition for relocating his music business, Meg Ragland was interviewing to move her Plumprints company into the Small Business Incubator at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College's Enka campus. She passed the advisory board with flying colors and is waiting to sign the lease for space.
"She has a really well-thought-out business plan, and the potential to hit so many different markets is really strong. It's a great product, and they seem to be on top of the marketing," said Marilyn McDonald, A-B Tech's strategic business development director.
Down in Asheville for six months now, both Raglands like the creative energy of their adopted new city.
"When you downsize from a city of 8 million to a city of, what, 80,000, you would expect a culture shock," Gar said. "But the creative capital per capita in Asheville is so high, there's no cultural compromise."
He pointed to the farm-to-table food movement that has turned Asheville into a strong restaurant town, a welcome mat for artists and crafters, and an influx of more businesses that fit into the creative class.
Tomasin agrees. At Echo Mountain, she's not just selling locally produced music to a nationwide industry, she's also selling Asheville. "People are moving here all the time, large music producers from New York and Los Angeles and Nashville. With everything digital now, people can work from most anywhere."
Asheville may have an edge over other cities by the shared enthusiasm and the creative collaboration. "In some ways, the Brooklyn music community is not nearly as connected as in Asheville," Gar said.
He likes not just the music side of his business, producing tracks by singer-songwriters, but the business side of music, working over revenues, budgets or new business models. "It requires me to be bilingual. One day I'm talking with an artist about the creative stuff, the next day I have to be proficient in the entrepreneurial aspect."
The Raglands agreed that Asheville also has a greater quality of life as a place to raising their family -- their 6 year old daughter, Kessie, and twin boys, Ridge and Graham, who turn 2 in April. "The farthest south I had ever lived was Fourth Street in Brooklyn," Meg admitted. "When Gar and I first moved down here, we were joking that everyone was drinking the same juice. Everyone is so positive, so warm and welcoming. We're starting to taste the juice and tell our friends, 'You have to move down here.'"
"Every day I walk around town, I'm glad to be here," said Gar. "And I want to do what I can to add to the creative fabric here."