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Wednesday, 09 June 2010 13:24

Economic development that works for the region

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A couple of stories we’ve covered in the last two weeks illustrate better than any data the new face of economic development here in the mountains. Community coordinators paid with tax dollars can help small businesses grow in our post-manufacturing economy.

Joey Bolado, the owner and chef at Grandview Lodge in Waynesville, would like to serve only fresh, local foods on his menu, everything from produce to meat. In today’s marketplace it just doesn’t work, despite his desires.

“Right now, I feel like I have to go out and find it,” Bolado said of the local produce. “They’re not coming to us.”

The Buy Haywood initiative, which is funded by the state’s Golden LEAF Foundation, promotes Haywood’s farms. It has helped market value-added products like salsa, jams and sauces made from local agricultural operations and has produced a map so locals and tourists alike can find farms and farmer’s markets that sell produce.

Now, it is working to connect local restaurants and chefs — like Bolado — to local growers. The new program is called 20-20-20, because its goal is to connect 20 local growers with 20 chefs who will use 20 different products.

The problems for the farmers and chefs are obvious, says Buy Haywood Coordinator George Ivey. Growers need to be in the fields rather than on the phone marketing, so they are much more likely to look for one or two large buyers rather than 20 small ones who only want a few products. Restaurant owners and chefs need convenience and variety, which doesn’t always fit with the production constraints of local growers.

The 20-20-20 project is trying to overcome these obstacles. It will succeed only if both parties can profit from the transaction. It also will take a change of mindset, a realization that there is value in making the local-to-local economy more robust.

Ivey’s efforts are similar to those of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which is a sort of regional version of Buy Haywood that promotes farm products from the southern mountain region.

“People mistakenly assume that just because someone has a product and somebody else wants a product, that’s a match,” said Peter Marks, ASAP’s program director. “There are so many other factors, like the ripeness, the uniqueness, the packaging.”

Ivey, Marks and others won’t solve this problem tomorrow, but I have not doubt that this is the future. As the locavore — someone who only eats foods grown locally — movement grows, more people will pay a few cents extra for fresh produce grown by their neighbors a few coves over. This is dovetailing with efforts to create local economies that support businesses down the street instead of across the globe.

•••

Another partnership was also in the news last week, one that brought Gov. Beverly Perdue to Waynesville and other parts of Western North Carolina. A project that would transform Main Street’s Strand Theater into a restaurant, brewery and entertainment venue got a $300,000 state grant, and it drew a crowd into the Arts Council’s Gallery 86 to hear Perdue discuss efforts to promote jobs in the state’s small downtowns.

Getting that grant required a lot of behind-the-scenes work, and that is what’s worth noting here. Downtown Waynesville Association Executive Director Buffy Messer knows what is going on in the downtown business district, and she knew Richard Miller was looking for a way to jumpstart his vision for the Strand.

She also realized that these Main Street Solutions grants were a good fit, and that time was running out to apply. Messer worked closely with Miller to put the pieces together to get the state grant

“I give her all the credit for bringing this to our attention,” said Miller.

Like Ivey’s work with the local growers and chefs, Messer’s work with small businessmen like Miller is exactly the kind of economic development that will help Haywood and other mountain counties thrive in the future.

Using state grant money — essentially our money — in this manner is certainly more appealing than awarding a multi-million dollar tax break to some huge corporation that could care less about this region. Right now just about all Southern states are way too deep into this game of trying to lure the Googles and the Toyotas of the world through tax breaks that are, to be frank, obscene. Meanwhile, the local factory or small business that’s been around for decades just keeps busting butt to hang on. That scenario always leaves a disgusting taste in my mouth.

Our mountain region is unique for many reasons, but its enduring spirit of independence may be what keeps it strong during the next several decades. This area was living the “buy local” movement before it had a name. We have a good mix of businesses that are helped by a steady flow of newcomers and visitors. It’s a good mix for a strong economy that doesn’t need to sell its soul to some huge manufacturer.

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