Real estate prices have taken such a drastic plunge in Macon and Jackson counties — which once boasted the highest concentration of mega-developments catering to the high-end second home market — that county commissioners there keep postponing the countywide property revaluation.
As Macon Bank scurried to get in on the ground floor of the real estate heyday in the mountains, it unwittingly stumbled into a house of cards, and found itself caught up in a scheme akin to insider trading that artificially inflated high-end lot prices and duped the bank into making risky loans.
In his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Today the challenge posed by Kennedy might read: “Ask not what you can do for your country — ask what your country is doing to you.”
The view from Roger Plemens office is hard to beat.
Bay windows serve up a bird’s eye view of the Nantahala mountain range, a vantage point that must have been a factor when Macon Bank chose this hilltop for its prestigious corporate headquarters that tower above Franklin.
Fallout from the real estate bubble in Western North Carolina has landed Macon Bank on the watch list of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a federal banking oversight arm.
Macon Bank has been operating under the scrutiny of the FDIC since March. The oversight agency has laid out a series of benchmarks the bank must meet, from strict performance targets to heightened involvement by the bank’s board of directors.
A Haywood County Tourism Development Authority board member has resigned from her seat after disagreeing with the rest of the board’s decision to close a couple of its visitors centers.
A one-of-a-kind database that encompasses virtually every aspect of life in Western North Carolina, from ecology to economics, is now available to decision makers, business leaders and the public.
The Mountain Resources Commission, a group formed in 2009 to study environmental and economic issues facing WNC, recently unveiled the vitality index.
As people’s discretionary spending remains low nationwide, golf courses in Haywood County are trying to drive their way out of a bunker with price cuts and special offers aimed at drawing in atypical players.
Golf courses in the Haywood County are, at the very least, trying to stay on par with past numbers — be it the number of rounds played or total revenue earned.
“It’s a luxury,” said Jay Manner, the general manager at Maggie Valley Club & Resort. “We understand that golf is important to a lot of people, but it isn’t shelter or food.”
To help golfers save, the club is waving its initiation fee for anyone who signs an 18-month membership commitment.
The decline in golf has mostly taken its toll among casual, or “fringe” golfers, said Duane Paige, the general manager of Laurel Ridge Country Club.
Core golfers, a term Paige uses for those who play two, three or even four rounds a week, have been less likely to let up on their game in the recession.
But fringe golfers, those who played once or twice a month, have backed off, perhaps only playing every other month now, Paige said. And those who used to play very other month might now play just twice a year — or not at all.
Manner said the Maggie Club is “cautiously optimistic” about its numbers this year, particularly given the unseasonably warm winter. The course was up 1,000 rounds of golf in April compared to the prior year.
However, more rounds does not automatically translate to more money coming in. Several years ago, a round at the Maggie Valley Club was around $90. Today, its about $60. The club also moved its twilight hours up. Golfers with tee times after 2 or 3 p.m. would typically pay discounted rates because of the late start. Now that rate has been extended to those who tee off after 1 p.m.
The Waynesville Inn is no different, offering limited time play passes that are cheaper than a full-fledged membership, though without some of the perks.
The passes are “for that golfer that wants to play golf but doesn’t want to tie up money in a membership,” said Tom Halterman, general manager at Waynesville Inn Golf Resort & Spa. “We have gained a great deal of the local play” as a result, he said.
Halterman said that he thinks younger generations are put-off by the lifestyle a golf club membership portrays.
“Today’s generation they are not interested in that type of thing,” Halterman said. “Membership tends to scream stuffy.”
Courses that were once almost entirely private have opened up their fairways to outside play as a way top counter the decline.
“If we can bring in some amount of outside play that helps supplement our income,” said Paige. Laurel Ridge is now among those semi-private courses that accept outside play.
“We are always looking to help people enjoy our golf course because if they do we hope they become a member one day,” Paige said.
Golf course managers with a long view of their sport are perhaps most troubled by the declining number of younger golfers there to replace their aging core clientele.
Paige said the decline in play among younger golfers isn’t due solely to the economy. Men, who still account for the majority of golfers, typically spend more time with their families on the weekend. They are more likely to be involved in activities with their children and have household responsibilities than men in previous generations.
That’s led Paige to look for ways to get the whole family out to the course, including wives and children. Laurel Ridge offers junior golf camp in the summer, as well as special Tee-It-Forward rounds where the tee box is moved closer on the fairway to make the course doable for youth.
Maggie Valley Club is trying to get kids into the sport by offering junior golf lessons for all ages. That way, when the kids are learning to swing and putt, the parents can enjoy the golf course themselves or the club’s other amenities. Otherwise, people just don’t have the time to devote to golf nowadays as they did in the past.
“They’ve got kids, families,” Manner said. “They don’t have 4 to 4.5 hours.”
Likewise, golf courses are not capturing as much of the baby boomer generation as they expected, given that many people are being forced to work well past retirement age.
In hindsight, the proliferation of golf courses developments aimed at retirees and second-home buyers during the real estate heyday of the early 2000s was perhaps overly optimistic, Paige said.
“We were predicting continued prosperity that if you built it, they would come,” Paige said of the region’s outlook. “So we overbuilt. We have a little bit more supply than we have demand.”
Staff Writer Becky Johnson contributed to this story
Haywood is banding together with Transylvania, Buncombe, Henderson and Madison counties under a project titled GroWNC, designed to get the region thinking collectively about ways to develop the economy with a focus on sustainability.
GroWNC is currently holding meetings in all five counties to gain feedback on the goals and gather information about their residents, including one planned in Haywood County this week. Participants are being asked everything from what people love most about Western North Carolina to individual demographics to opinions about the program.
“It is trying to take a long-term vision of the area and see what our common issues are,” said Waynesville’s Assistant Town Manager Alison Melnikova. “It’s basically everything people like about Western North Carolina and preserving it.”
The group will focus on seven core areas: jobs and economic development; housing; natural resources; cultural resources; energy; land use; transportation; and health and wellness.
The consortium is led by an 18-member committee, which is responsible for prioritizing work activities, participating in the selection of consultants and making recommendations to guide the project. Sub-committees have been formed to address the seven specific areas.
Each of the committees has drafted a list of goals that it hopes to work toward that will promote growth and more inter-connectivity between the counties, rather than each county taking its own path.
“GroWNC better conveys our goal of growing together as a region,” said Carrie Runser-Turner, senior planner with Land-of-Sky Regional Council, a multi-county local government planning and development organization. “Really what we are trying to do is look at the choices we make in these areas (and) how they are inter-related.”
Among the goals are creating effective job training programs; exploring alternative energy options; increasing transportation choices; promoting community health resources such as gym class in schools and physical activity programs; building mixed use neighborhoods with a “sense of place;” and encouraging the development of affordable housing, among others.
The meetings being held throughout the project region are informal, allowing people to move from table to table as they wish and skip over areas that they don’t have an particular interest in. Door prizes will also be given away at the meetings.
“The participants get to shape their experience with this meeting,” Melnikova said.
A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant was awarded to the counties for the project through the Land-of-Sky.
Haywood Community College will host an informational and feedback meeting from 4-7 p.m. on May 16 in the Charles Beall Auditorium. If you cannot attend the meeting at HCC, check out www.gro-wnc.org for other upcoming meetings and more information about GroWNC.
The Jackson County farmers market had three or four vendors who regularly showed up each week to sell their homegrown goods in 2001.
For the most part, the growers would sit around, chew the fat and trade produce.
“It was kind of our farmer’s morning out,” said Cathy Arps, who runs Vegenui Garden with her husband Ron.
The vendors would make maybe a few sales during the day. However, mostly, people would drive-by the market, roll down their car windows and glance at the offerings before zipping off.
“It was very difficult,” Arps said. But, “The farmers of the farmers market hung on.”
Now, about a decade later, the number of vendors has more than septupled and the amount of customers has grown even more.
The Jackson County market is not an anomaly. The number of vendors at the Waynesville farmers market went from fewer than a dozen in 2008 to now more than 60, with crowds perusing all their options. Beeswax candles, goat’s milk soap, sauces and rubs, cheese and round out the traditional baskets and tables of produce.
“There is a tremendous movement underfoot to save your local farmers,” said Carol James, former president with the Haywood Historic Farmers Market.
Both markets are representative of a nationwide trend that spread during the last several years. Considerably more people are buying local.
“The farmers market is sort of a snapshot of the radical change,” Arps said.
The desire to buy local goes beyond food. People are growing tired of the mass-produced, dime-a-dozen riffraff made overseas that line the shelves of retail giants. Locally made is a hip alternative.
Looking to capitalize on the movement, Haywood County and the downtown Waynesville business district are finding ways to promote locally produced merchandise that is unique to the area as well as items made within the U.S. — which seem difficult to find when perusing the tags at any area department store.
Taking a cue from the Good Morning, America series “Made in America,” Buffy Phillips, executive director of the Waynesville Downtown Association, decided to find out what businesses in Waynesville’s downtown sell items crafted in Western North Carolina and in the U.S.
“I just thought it was time we came together and promoted it,” Phillips said. “I find that customers are asking. They want to know what is made in the USA and locally.”
Phillips has been compiling a list of downtown businesses with U.S. and locally made wares. Although American-made clothes are still difficult to find, people can find WNC-made jewelry at the Jeweler’s Workbench or buy dog treats at the Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery. High Country Home sells furniture and cabinets constructed in Waynesville and hardwood floors from Franklin. And, the local brews are taking off with Headwaters Brewing Company, Frog Level Brewery and soon at the Tipping Point. With the exception of a few items, most food necessities can be found around town — from the smoked tomato jam at Sunburst Trout Market to barbecue sauces to jams and salsa.
Phillips is distributing stacks of stickers and signs to businesses along the downtown Main Street strip that each can used to advertise whether they sell products made in the U.S.
Twigs and Leaves Art Gallery is already one step ahead of the curve with a map displayed in its window, showing where in the U.S. each of its products hails from — all but a handful are from within WNC.
“I would love to think that everybody on the street would have something made in North Carolina,” Phillips said.
And, in a couple of months, the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority will launch its own similar campaign “Homegrown in Haywood.” The logo of the advertising initiative is a needle inside of a fish, inside of a duclimer, inside of an artist’s palette, inside of an apple.
Visitors want to experience the local culture, buy things that are specific to the area and eat what the locals eat, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood TDA. The marketing campaign helps point people in the right direction and also advertise the things that make the county different.
Part of the movement in Western North Carolina is also about preserving Appalachian culture, which is why the dulcimer — a locally significant instrument — is included in the tourism agency’s logo.
In addition to food and art, there are blacksmiths who makes tools, woodworkers who build tables, soap makers, bookbinders, people who manufacture guns — all too numerous to count.
“Locavesting” catching on
People aren’t just purchasing more items grown, constructed and masterminded in Western North Carolina, but they are willing to invest in local ventures.
For example, when Annie’s Naturally Bakery closed late this year, 10 area residents pooled their money to help the popular Sylva joint reopen.
“I think this is a concept that makes a lot of sense to a lot of people,” said Frank Lockwood, an assistant professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Western North Carolina University. “I think we will find more and more examples of this locavesting as we figure out how to do it.”
Along the same vein, some area growers have begun selling season-long memberships to their farm’s bounty, guaranteeing an individual a portion of the crops that are harvested each week.
“It is basically like people buying a subscription to your product,” Arps said.
Although the products are slightly pricier than their grocery store counterparts, people are willing to pay that little extra for natural products without all the additives, preservatives and extra unnecessary stuff.
Jackson resident and farmer Jackie Hooper hasn’t heard any complaints about her reduced sugar apple butter-like spread. In fact, she said, less is what more people are looking for.
“People don’t seem to mind that there isn’t more sugar,” said Hooper, who also sells chicken, quail and rabbit, among other items. “They are actually glad because sugar is one of the things they are actually trying to cut down on.”
That sentiment hits on a big reason why people want to buy straight from the farmer rather than the grocery store. People are more health conscious compared to the past.
“They are really reading package labels,” said Hooper, of Shared Blessings Farm in Cullowhee. “They no longer want to buy it ready-made in a grocery store.”
In many cases, the product is also tastier, since it had a shorter distance to travel before it ended up on someone’s plate.
Robin Smith, of Lenoir’s Devon in Canton, is one of several cattle farmers in Haywood County whose focus is to deliver fresher, higher quality beef without a middleman.
“We were just really interested in selling a better product than the grocery stores had,” Smith said. “(The beef) doesn’t go from a big plant and have additives in it.”
In places like Western North Carolina, the movement only seems natural given the vast tracts of open land. There have always been farmers in the area, but after WWII, fewer Americans grew their own food or received produce from a nearby farm. And now, the nation is moving back toward its roots.
“There are now people that are willing to grow the products and make it available,” Lockwood said. “In the neck of the woods we live in … it’s something that makes a lot of sense.”
The dour economy has also played a role in national shift in mentality as people lost their jobs and saw manufacturing facilities move overseas, making buyers more conscious of where their purchases come from.
“I guess now with a loss of businesses and employees, we don’t want to lose anymore,” Phillips said.