By Beth Lawrence
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners adopted an updated economic development plan at its regular meeting Tuesday.
The board voted unanimously to approve recommendations made by WithersRavenel of Asheville to update the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy first created in 2012.
“The CEDS is also a very fluid document, meaning that it needs to be referred to and updated as economic conditions merit,” outgoing Economic Development Director Rich Price said. “Five to seven years is a good guideline, but this past year has underscored that dramatic changes in economic conditions can happen quickly.”
The review was to begin in early 2020 but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The largely virtual analysis commenced in September with 30 stakeholders including chambers of commerce, tourism and development, Western Carolina University, Southwestern Community College, municipal leaders and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians among others.
The review and updated recommendations cost the county $35,000.
The review examined areas where the county was strong and areas where it was lacking.
The study underscored that the main area in which the county is greatly lacking is affordable housing.
“Fifty-two percent of renters and 21 percent of homeowners in Jackson County have difficulty affording housing,” said Arthur Salido, WithersRavenel’s director of business strategy and economic development.
It found the county’s largest employers were government, healthcare, food services, guest accommodations such as hotels, and retail which accounted for 70 percent of local jobs.
The review also reiterated the lack of broadband internet access across the county as well as limited retail offerings.
At the Feb. 9 work session, WithersRavenel submitted a 54-page report including recommended goals the county should work toward. They are: maintain a robust and sustainable tourism destination, build a workforce that will meet the needs of current and future employers, countywide broadband availability, create a marketing campaign for Jackson County to support existing businesses and attract new business, identify investment opportunities to address current and future critical economic needs, commit to becoming an entrepreneurial/small business capital, maintain a comprehensive economic development strategy, maintain and enhance the quality of life for citizens, tourists and small business owners.
Suggestions for addressing each goal were provided.
The assessment suggested improved access to lakes and rivers could boost recreational use for fishing and other water-related activities. Improved foot and vehicle access along the Tuckaseigee River could reduce congestion and improve visitor experience.
A regional branding campaign for features such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and other natural and manmade features could allow Jackson and surrounding counties to compete with Tennessee towns, like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, which have used the same tactic and show up frequently in internet searches.
Suggestions to become a small business and entrepreneurial capital included creating a small business hub in Sylva where a number of small business support organizations could co-locate. Doing so might spur job creation and retention.
“Supporting entrepreneurship and startups will be increasingly important given difficulty recruiting business to rural areas and the pandemic’s negative impact on existing firms,” Salido said. “Co-locating leverages the strengths of service providers like (Southwestern Community College’s) small business center and other support organizations if they could be housed together.”
To ensure that Jackson residents will have access to ongoing and improved quality of life the assessments included suggestions to protect natural resources from degradation, manage traffic congestion and control crime.
To protect the county’s strong points developing a long-term water resources management strategy, creating mixed-use real-estate developments, improving river access, and adding bike paths and access for alternative transportation were suggested.
Among the county’s current merits were: developed walkable downtowns, a hospital and health care system on an upward trajectory, low crime, an atmosphere suitable to raising a family and plenty of outdoor recreation.
It is best to have an outside party make such determinations rather than the county assessing itself, Price said.
“It is important to utilize independent, unbiased third parties to assist with various planning processes whenever possible, to ensure full and impartial input and collaboration,” he said. “Often those consultants have resources to provide very efficient research and to gain the necessary public and stakeholder input.”
To see the full report visit jacksonnc.org. Click on the commissioners meeting agendas link under government and find the Feb. 9 meeting.