Connecting with a generation of millennial employees, sharing leadership ideas and municipal success stories were some of the topics discussed by the 180 attendees of the inaugural Vision Northwest North Carolina summit held May 22 at the Leon Levine Hall of Health Sciences on the medical campus of Appalachian State University.

The event featured attendees from the 12 counties in the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina’s Northwest Prosperity Zone, which includes Alleghany, Alexander, Ashe, Avery, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, McDowell, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey counties.

The day started at 9 a.m. with a morning keynote speech, then broke attendees into three groups who listened to different panelists, which made their way to each group before and after the second keynote speech in the afternoon. The breakout groups engaged in conversation regarding business recruitment, employee retention strategies, workforce and talent development trends and developing regional collaboration on economic development projects. After the breakout groups finished at 4 p.m., a social was held on the ground floor of Levine Hall.

Boone Area Chamber of Commerce President David Jackson said in the morning that the idea for Vision NWNC came from attending the Energizing Rural North Carolina conference last year, held by the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

“We are here to prove that there is life beyond Winston-Salem and show that Boone is not Asheville,” Jackson said.

Beech Mountain Resort’s Talia Freeman spoke about her success through patience, adaptability and creating value for employees, and how optimizing employee performance goes hand in hand with customer satisfaction.

“Some employees don’t respond to an email, but to my Snapchat,” Freeman said. “If you believe in yourself, believe in your organization ... it will become contagious.”

Chris Chung, president and CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of N.C., spoke about how there is an energy and pride in every corner of North Carolina, but noted there is something distinct in northwest N.C.

“You have a lot of passionate, energetic people who are trying to solve these challenges in an inclusive way,” Chung said. “Unlike what I’ve seen in other communities, there’s not a sense of waiting for the calvary to come in.”

In his role, Chung said that recruiting companies to move into N.C. gets a lot of attention, but there’s too much focus on it and not enough on building blocks to get to that point.

“If you don’t address foundational issues, you may not be able to recruit a business,” Chung said.

Chung said education, workforce, infrastructure, health and leadership are keys for any community that wants to get serious about economic development.

Chung stressed the importance of Pre-K and early childhood education for a community that seeks to grow economically. Fiber optic and broadband are essentials, no longer options, Chung said, noting the rise of distance learning and telemedicine.

George Sherrill, the chief of staff for the North Carolina Department of Commerce, was the keynote speaker of the afternoon session. Sherrill spoke on being ready for emerging challenges and about his home county of Avery.

Sherrill grew up in the Montezuma community of Avery , saying that back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a very poor place. Sherrill brought up J. Ray Braswell and how he founded Mountain Glen Golf Club just outside of Banner Elk to help spur economic development in the area.

Vibrant downtowns such as West Jefferson were brought up by Sherrill as a key to economic development.

“I’ve never ever had a site selector say ‘let me see your strip malls,’” Sherrill said.

Sherrill also mentioned state grant funds available for physical infrastructure, as well as the need to close Medicaid coverage gaps in North Carolina, saying it will lead to more jobs and a healthier talent pool.

“Bright days are ahead,” Sherrill said in his conclusion.

In the breakout sessions, held in the morning and afternoon, leaders from 12 counties in the northwest N.C. region listened to a variety of stories and ideas from a rotating group of panelists.

Brantley Price, town manager for West Jefferson, spoke about the downtown streetscape project the town has done and how it’s led to a revitalization of the area with people buying buildings and increased pedestrian usage.

Price also said that Ashe County is fortunate that they already have broadband and mentioned that the GE Aviation plant is on its way to increasing its workforce to 360 total jobs.

Lane Weiss of the Downtown Boone Development Association spoke about the various projects going on in downtown Boone, including the improvements to the intersections of West King Street and College Street, Appalachian Street and West King Street and other downtown projects. Ward said when he took his current position in fall 2014, there was a long list of items to accomplish.

The upcoming $12 million Howard Street revitalization was specifically mentioned by both Weiss and Boone Town Manager John Ward, who both said the project will double the downtown commercial corridor of Boone.

Commuting to work was continuously brought up throughout the day. Deborah Murray of Caldwell County Economic Development said that over 15,000 commute to work in Caldwell County each day and Sherrill said that half of N.C. workers commute outside of their county, saying that in Ashe County, more than 40 percent of residents commute more than 30 minutes to work, specifically in Alleghany County.

Jimi Combs, owner of Boone-based Tsuga, spoke on developing a positive workforce culture. With a company of employees 30 years old or younger, Combs said he’s given his employees more flexibility and freedom in exchange for better productivity.

Bob Boyette, manager for the city of Marion, said that there’s a focus on Main Street, with the road being closed 26 times in 2018 for different festivals, including the WNC Bigfoot Festival, which he said attracts 30,000 people.

“Downtown doesn’t pay the bills, but we’re judged by the success of our downtown,” Boyette said.

Becky Gosky, relocation and retention coordinator with Appalachian State Human Resources, said that new workforce professionals are seeking professional development in their careers and said that employees are more likely to change jobs because of bad relationships with their superiors. Gosky also said workforce networking website LinkedIn is being utilized by applicants.

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