Through a unique regional partnership, Haywood County recently outsourced much of its economic development activity to the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. More than simply a marketing deal, the partnership has the Asheville Chamber touting development opportunities in Haywood County alongside its own, citing mutual benefit to the region as a whole.
Like many rural Appalachian counties, Haywood County – with just a quarter of the population of Buncombe County to the east – has a tough time competing against larger communities for new businesses. That largely comes down to the amount of money a county spends in promoting sites that have development potential, like the 22-acre parcel on Jonathan Creek Road just 2 and a half miles from Interstate 40 in Haywood County. Last fall, officials in the two Western North Carolina counties inked a three-year $100,000 deal that could be a paradigm shift in how economic development is practiced by smaller communities that, according to Haywood Economic Development Council Board Chairman Jason Walls, are looking for cooperation rather than competition. "The concept of regionalism is something that this community has always put as a priority. Leveraging the breadth and depth of our adjoining county and their economic development arm can be really helpful as we continue to market and grow our economy here locally", says Walls.
Asheville’s brand remains strong across the country; nestled into a bowl-shaped valley that spans the French Broad River, the town and its environs are known for natural beauty and eclectic diversity in a state with the some of the lowest business taxes in the nation; companies want to locate there because workers want to live there. Asheville’s chamber has an economic development arm many times the size of Haywood’s, says Haywood County Chamber of Commerce President CeCe Hipps. "They have a lot of technology advancements that we don’t have and cannot afford to have."
Recent economic development victories in Buncombe County, however, have consumed big chunks of Buncombe’s developable land and driven rents through the roof. Haywood, on the other hand, still has prime acreage, reasonable rents, similar access to highways, railways and runways and a public school system that again ranked 11th of 115 in the state. Haywood’s easternmost municipality is well-positioned to take advantage of that growth – something Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers says he’d welcome. "The character of our community – very blue collar, driven, a lot of historic buildings – I think syncs well with what you see with the growth in Asheville", says Smathers. "You go to a place like West Asheville and you can close your eyes and I think what you see is what Canton will be in several years."
That growth has already begun spilling over the county border into Canton, but flaws in the NC Department of Commerce’s three-tiered classification system mean that Haywood is considered one of the state’s most prosperous counties. That is news to Haywood County according to Ben Teague. "It seems a disadvantage to Haywood County to be a tier three and compete with some of the largest communities in the state, so we want to maybe take another look at that and see if there’s a way that we can influence that", he says.
Teague is the chief operating officer of the Asheville-Area Chamber and executive director of the Economic Development Coalition to do their jobs. During a recent visit to Haywood County, he saw plenty of opportunity. "Touring through the different towns and through the county, it really felt like a slice of Americana meets the beautiful mountains. Mixed throughout, there were great sites for industrial, and sites for entrepreneurs."
President and CEO of the Asheville Chamber Kit Cramer keeps using the apple basket analogy – they present their basket of apples to businesses looking to expand or relocate in the area, and if Buncombe’s apples aren’t quite what they’re looking for, Haywood’s apples are still better for Asheville than Knoxville’s, or Greenville’s. Asheville Chamber VP of Economic Development Clark Duncan summed it up after his visit to Haywood County, which ended at Bearwaters Brewing in Canton. "I think the paradigm shift is, we all have to learn how to celebrate economic wins no matter where they are in the metro area. This partnership recognizes that truth."