Economic development summit gets thinkers together

Dozens of business, education, health care and government leaders convened Wednesday at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum for a day of reflection and discussion. Photo by Kellen Moore

Movers and shakers from the High Country gathered Wednesday in Blowing Rock to think creatively about the county's economic future.

"Our goal is to come here and get good minds in one room and come out of here with some measurable outcomes," said Keith Honeycutt, chairman of the Watauga County Economic Development Commission.

Honeycutt told attendees at the second Watauga County Economic Development Summit about the work of the EDC in the last several years.

Last year, Insite Consulting representatives offered advice on how the county could position itself for economic growth. The consultants suggested creating client-ready spaces to attract certain types of low-impact, high-education businesses.

The target businesses included entrepreneurs, computer system services, athletic goods manufacturers, medical instrument suppliers, research and development firms and biotechnology companies, among others.

He touched briefly on the county's recent decision to purchase 199 acres off N.C. 194 North for use as a business park.

The county is currently in the midst of a five-month due diligence period during which it will decide whether to go ahead with the $1.7 million purchase.

"We're excited about that," Honeycutt said. "It's a beautiful piece of property. We have a lot of work to do as far as water and sewer, fiber, gas ... but looking at some of the other properties that were out in the county that we had talked about purchasing, we saved somewhere between $12 (million) and $14 million."

Honeycutt said EDC members also had visited existing businesses and companies to see how they could be assisted in growing and strengthening their work.

He praised the business owners in attendance for what they are doing to provide jobs and strengthen the economy.

The summit also included an overview of the region's economy by Ash Morgan, assistant director of ASU's Center for Economic Research and Policy Analysis.

Morgan explained that Watauga County managed better than many parts of the state during the "Great Recession," now charting the lowest unemployment rates of any of the High Country counties, including Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Wilkes and Yancey.

"Watauga's fared better, and I think the presence of the university is important," Morgan said. "Tourism, too."

The county's current unemployment rate is better than North Carolina's, but worse than the United States average.

Between 1990 and 2012, employment in Watauga County grew by about 15.6 percent, he said, while North Carolina as a whole increased by 27.5 percent.

Armed with new knowledge, attendees spent most of the afternoon in a session led by Jared Nichols, a consultant and speaker who encourages organizations to think strategically about the future.

He offered examples of ideas considered incomprehensible years ago that are happening now: space tourism, brain-controlled toys and "designer babies."

"You have to first give yourself permission to go to those crazy places," Nichols said.

Groups of participants talked throughout the afternoon about other hypothetical situations before bringing the focus back to Watauga County and its economic needs.

Nichols encouraged the groups to imagine looking back on today from the future and consider what needs must be fulfilled now to create the economic climate they desire in the future.

"Think back to 1993 and ask yourself: What do you know now that you wish you knew then?" he said. "What could we have done to anticipate or prepare for unexpected events?"

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