Standing tall: Western North Carolina is mixing traditional and new industries to grow its economy, train a modern workforce and improve an already high quality of life.

Author:Saylor, Teri

Western North Carolina is full of breathtaking views and rugged terrain, including the highest mountain in the East, Mount Mitchell. But when it comes to the region's economy, its [dollar]3 billion tourism industry stands tallest. It employs about 30,000 people, says Wit Tuttell, executive director of Visit North Carolina, the tourism arm of Cary-based Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina Inc. "Asheville is exploding with new hotels, attractions and the [craft] brew scene. Boone has added hotels. Tweetsie Railroad is expanding. Harrah's just built a second casino in Murphy, and Tryon is home to an equestrian center."

A team of hospitality and tourism students at Cullowhee-based Western Carolina University analyzed 2015 tourist spending in 26 western North Carolina counties. They calculated [dollar]3.34 billion in total spending, 3.5% more than the previous year. That created 31,540 jobs.

But it hasn't been all good times for tourism. "During the [recent] recession, people still came," Tuttell says. "They didn't stay as long, but they came. Tourism is strong and it continues to grow!' You can raise a glass to the regions craft brewing industry, which offers taprooms, festivals, tastings and tours, for helping that happen.

Chico, Calif.-based Sierra Nevada announced in January 2012 that it was building a [dollar]110 million brewery with about 95 full-time and 80 part-time jobs in the small Henderson County community of Mills River. Three months later, Fort Collins, Colo.-based New Belgium Brewing Co. announced a [dollar]175 million brewery in the River Arts District of Asheville, which has been named Beer City USA four times. It's expected to eventually create 150 jobs. In May 2012, Longmont, Colo.-based Oskar Blues Brewery completed the beer trifecta, announcing a Brevard brewery that would bring 35 jobs.

The industry has been a boon to western North Carolina, where Raleigh-based North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild counts 70 brewers. "The beer industry in North Carolina is the first or second fastest-growing in the entire country," says guild Executive Director Margo Metzger. "It was our great fortune that three major breweries made their second home in western North Carolina. We have 204 breweries in North Carolina with 50 more in the planning stages. We look to be around 260 by the end of the year, and we continue to see growth in the number of taprooms." The estimated statewide annual economic impact is [dollar]1.2 billion, and they provide more than 10,000 jobs.

Western North Carolina is standing tall. Officials and economic developers are partnering new industries, such as craft brewing, with the regions longtime economic players such as agriculture, tourism and higher education. Together they strengthen the economy and elevate an already high quality of life.

Sylva-based Southwestern North Carolina Planning and Economic Development Commission includes Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. "We recognized we'd have an easier time pulling together as a region instead of independently' says Executive Director Sarah Thompson. "Tourism is a huge sector for us, and it's great, but we want diversification." One focus of the partnership is improving access to regional broadband internet. It's an expensive proposition in the seven-county region, which counts 200,000 residents. "This is our most important economic-development need. We are fortunate to have fiber [optics cable] in the ground, and we would love to grow our technology sector!'

Ben Hamrick is a longtime Asheville resident and businessman. Born and raised in Shelby, he graduated from Appalachian State University in Boone and is CEO of Asheville-based accounting firm Johnson Price Sprinkle PA, which also has offices in Marion and Boone. "We focus on small to midmarket companies that are representative of the local economy. Our clients are entrepreneurial and are in the hospitality, health services and manufacturing sectors."

Hamrick joined JPS in 1983 and has served as Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce chairman. He has witnessed the city change. "It's remarkable what has happened here. We have a great downtown, awesome restaurants and a great beer scene. We're benefiting from Asheville's 'cool' factor."

Asheville's population was 90,918 as of July 1,2015, according to N.C. Office of State Budget and Management. The four counties in the Asheville region--Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison--are home to almost 442,000 people. "We're going to be a half million population in a few years," says Clark Duncan, director of business development for the economic-development division of Asheville Chamber of Commerce. "Asheville is the true urban center of the mountains and continues to be a growth center for professional opportunities."

Manufacturers, such as Evendale, Ohio-based GE Aviation, which recently invested almost [dollar]200 million in its Asheville and West Jefferson plants, craft brewers and others have provided Asheville with [dollar]5 billion in economic development over the last five years, says Ben Teague, chief operating officer and executive director of the economic-development division of Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce...

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