By Tim Gardner
Representing his firm, Ridgetop Associates, David Huskins presented an organizational pathway for developing a comprehensive county economic development strategy to the Avery Economic Development Committee at its November 26 meeting held in the Board of Commissioners Conference Room in Newland.
Huskins and his wife, Betty, are experienced economic development and governmental affairs consultants.
Avery EDC members present at the meeting included: Ken Walter; Melynda Pepple; Susan Siirila; Carmen Lacey; Jesse Pope; and Clayton Harpold, who was recently appointed as the newest member of Economic Development Committee by the Board of Commissioners.
Also present were Kate Gavenus, Tourism & Economic Development Coordinator for the Town of Beech Mountain and Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr., who serves as a non-voting EDC member.
Based in Linville Falls, Ridgetop actually provided services to the County in the early 1990’s in establishing its initial economic development commission and the county planning board. They represented the county for several years in that consulting role and helped recruit the former Owens-Brigam manufacturing plant at Pineola and ADDCO Enterprises at Linville. The Huskins’ also secured a $150,000 appropriation from the North Carolina State Legislature to help establish the Avery County Planning Board and growth strategy.
Ridgetop has worked with economic development strategies for several counties and regions in North Carolina, including developing a statewide plan, N.C. Tomorrow. Additionally, Ridgetop also provides advocacy and lobbying services at both the congressional and state legislative levels.
Huskins advised the Avery EDC committee that essential elements of any economic development strategy revolve around “four pillars.” He listed those as: Building on your competitive advantages and leveraging the market place; Establishing and maintaining a robust infrastructure; Creating revitalized, healthy, secure and resilient communities; and Developing talented and innovative residents.
To those ends, Huskins suggested that Avery County has many competitive advantages, but they need to be identified specifically and incorporated into a strategic initiative. He cited that the major infrastructure challenge was having “adequate Broadband Internet service.”
He explained in detail with the following comments: “Lack of Broadband is the single biggest deterrent to economic development in rural areas. Avery County has seven incorporated communities. I’m happy that Avery County is currently expanding internet service through the LightLeap program. And hopefully, all parts of the county will soon have Broadband service. Any economic development strategy must include plans for keeping those communities vibrant and resilient. Workforce and skill development are always major issues. Having good educational resources and training is critical to economic prosperity.”
Huskins also noted that all counties bordering Avery County had active, viable, economic development programs that were staffed full-time and well resourced, with annual budgets in the $200,000-plus range. He observed that Avery essentially was “the hole of the doughnut,” since it was represented only by a volunteer commission working with very limited resources. He added that not having professional representation to help staff the EDC puts Avery County at a competitive disadvantage with its peer counties in the region.
But Huskins suggested that Avery’s EDC did not need to invest at the level of the surrounding counties because it was just now reorganizing and trying to find its way in economic development after several years of dormancy. He offered to continue discussions with the EDC and county officials to show how Ridgetop could work with them to develop a strategy, even with such limited resources.
Huskins and his wife, Betty, established Ridgetop Associates in 1985 to assist clients with governmental affairs and public policy needs, economic development pursuits, public relations and special project management. They have spent their professional careers helping communities, non-profits and private companies develop strategic collaborations and partnerships to meet their goals.
They have lived in the Linville Falls Community for 43 years, where they also own and operate Linville Falls Lodge and the former Spear’s BBQ & Grill.
The Avery County Economic Development Committee is comprised of nine members, the County Manager and County Commissioner Tim Phillips. The EDC includes a diverse group of business specialists consisting of retired corporate executives, current Chief Executive Officers, management professionals and entrepreneurs. Their career backgrounds range across the board from manufacturing, education, health care, utilities, retail and wholesale. Some EDC’s members are Avery County natives with their family heritages ranging from multiple generations, while others are expats from more northern states.
The EDC has two primary objectives, each sharing equal priority: to insure the success, growth and retention of current businesses in the county and to attract new commerce here.
Additionally, the Avery County Economic Development Committee is a referral resource for entrepreneurs, a new business start-up, and a business entering a growth cycle or an established company wishing to expand or relocate.
The EDC is available to assist businesses with: writing a business plan; startup capital requirements rules and regulation compliance; employee recruitment; job training reimbursement; educational and advanced training opportunities; and all other aspects of starting or operating a retail, wholesale, tourism, hospitality, agricultural, commercial or light manufacturing business.
Barrier gave the following remarks about the meeting’s productivity: “Our meeting was very positive in a general exchange of what we need to and want to do to market ourselves as a county and become more visible in the process in our economic development processes. Mr. Huskins gave a wonderful presentation and his advice and expertise in helping us is most appreciated and useful.”
The Avery County Economic Development Advisory Committee meets the last Monday of every month at 5:00 PM in the Board of Commissioners Conference Room, in the Avery County Office Building at 175 Linville Street, Newland.
Barrier noted that the EDC will not meet on the last Monday in December as it will be on New Year’s Eve. The EDC’s next regular monthly meeting will be January 28.