Forging a new economy: public input sought in roadmap for WNC

The creation of a monolithic blueprint that will lead the seven western counties into a new economy is under way, but the team of researchers behind it is calling for community input to ensure the vision being crafted is the right one.

“We want to speak to people in the region to show them what we have done so far and make sure we are capturing their perspective,” said Ben Brown with the Macon-based Placemakers consulting firm that’s part of the research team.

A $1.3-million, year long visioning process known as Opportunity Initiative — or Opt-In, for short — is engaging business, civic and community leaders. But it also wants to check in and touch base with the general public.

A series of upcoming public meetings will synthesize key findings emerging from the mountains of data and research. Some of the findings are old news. Manufacturing has declined. High-speed Internet access is lacking. The population is aging. 

But until now, what these disparate realities actually mean hasn’t been assessed collectively as a region.

“There is no doubt that all rural areas are struggling for a sense of identity and strategic purpose,” Brown said. “Rural communities have to be much smarter to use the resources that are there and to create new resources.”

But the massive visioning study will hopefully come up with concrete solutions to putting WNC on the path of a shared vision.

“Where do we put our time and energy? How to we maximize our opportunities? Are we making the best use of our assets right now?” Brown posed. 

The answer likely lies in WNC’s strengths. While it may seem intuitive, the study will assess how the region can tap into its assets to build a better economic future, Brown said.

“What things are we really good at? Outdoor recreation, the mountains and rivers, are really strong consistent assets,” Brown said.

The following is a list of public meeting locations where the research team will gather public input. Drop-bys start at 5:30 p.m., with the formal presentations and discussion from 6 to 8 p.m.

• Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Monday, Sept. 23, at Tribal Council House.

• Robbinsville, Tuesday, Sept. 24, at Graham County Community Center.

• Franklin, Thursday, Sept. 26, at Macon Bank Corporate Center.

• Cullowhee, Monday, Sept. 30, at Western Carolina University’s A.K. Hinds Center, multi-purpose room.

• Bryson City, Thursday, Oct. 3, Swain County Technology and Training Center.

• Waynesville, Thursday, Oct. 10, at Regional High Technology Center.

— By Becky Johnson

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