While heated and controversial, it struck at the fundamental, underlying philosophy of what the county’s economic development strategy should be.
Back then, economic development efforts were focused largely on luring new factories. Economic development leaders were accused of being too insular and unresponsive to the changing economic paradigm in Appalachia.
“The dynamics of the economy have changed so much,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown, an attorney who has been on the new economic development board since it was formed 10 years ago.
The county had hemorrhaged several thousand manufacturing jobs over a decade. Chasing new factory jobs to replace those being lost simply wasn’t working.
“The large manufacturing concerns were not viable for Haywood County or most communities in America for that matter,” said Mark Swinger, chairman of the Haywood County Commissioners.
The process 10 years ago — as with the process now — was initiated at Swanger’s behest shortly after he took office as a county commissioner. A blue-ribbon task force was convened for several months.
In the end, a new economic development board was constituted, a new director was hired and a new mission was adopted — one that focuses on entrepreneurship, recruiting new business and supporting existing industries to keep the jobs the county already has.
The new board was more inclusive, in hopes that a more collaborative approach from a broader cross-section of the county would lead to better results.
“If we have done anything over the past 10 years, we have really broadened the idea of what economic development is,” said Mark Clasby, Haywood’s economic development director since the reorganization 10 years ago.
Some of the same players at the table then are now at the table once more, revisiting some of the same questions.
But Swanger expects it to play out much differently. When asked whether this process will be marked with political discord like last go around, Swanger said “no.”
“I am certain it will not be. We have a different dynamic entirely,” Swanger said.
For starters, no one is particularly dissatisfied with the economic development commission or the director. Swanger said Clasby is doing a fine job. Examining whether there is a better model should be taken at face value and not as a reflection on Clasby’s performance, Swanger said.
Ten years later, it is reasonable to go through the exercise again, Clasby agreed.
“It is time to do an evaluation of what would be best for the county from an economic development standpoint,” Clasby said. “What is the best model for the economic development commission? It may be the best model is still the county.”
But Brown said the process this time around doesn’t seem to be asking a key question: what is the goal?
The last overhaul focused on what the mission should be, then focused on the best structure to achieve it. This time, the process seems to be focused primarily on the structure, skipping over the most fundamental questions, Brown said.
“Obviously you should always review your operations and make sure you are meeting your goals. That begs the question: what is it we want to be doing?” Brown asked. “You have to know what your goal is. What do we want to achieve?”
That question may not need answering to the same extent it did a decade ago, however. The shift a decade ago required monumental self-reflection — even an admission of failure to some extent — and acceptance that the future of economic development looked far different than the past.
“The reality of our economic development landscape today is the entrepreneur and the small business as our base,” said Charles Umberger, CEO of Old Town Bank and a member of the chamber executive board.
With that major machination having transpired already, the mission this time might be more self-explanatory.
“The emphasis is what is the most effective model to create a sustainable, growing economic community in Haywood County. To create the place we all want to live, work and play,” Umberger said.
While not nearly as dramatic as the time of reckoning the county faced a decade ago, the economic climate has certainly kept changing, Swanger said.
The conversation is particularly prescient as the state contemplates eliminating Advantage West, a regional economic development arm in the mountains. Haywood leaned on AdvantageWest for networking, to help recruit new businesses and to piggyback on regional initiatives. There would certainly be a void if AdvantageWest disappeared.
“We have to be nimble enough to adapt to the situation we find ourselves in in coming months,” Swanger said.