By Jesse Wood
Oct. 4, 2013. The Watauga County Board of Commissioners and the Economic Development Commission met last Tuesday to discuss the role of the EDC in the county and whether or not the EDC should continue the exploration and search for another business park.
The joint meeting was scheduled after the EDC met on Sept. 12 and voiced frustrations regarding the Aug. 20 vote by the commissioners to cancel the $1.7 million contract on the 200-acre property off of N.C. 194. EDC Vice Chair Joe Miller led the meeting off by asking the commissioners three questions:
- What do you want for Watauga County’s economic future?
- What do you want the EDC to do?
- Should a tract of land for a business park be sought?
As Watauga County Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Miller said, “You know none of the five of us are going to say we want an economically depressed Watauga.”
Commissioners Billy Kennedy and John Welch noted that Watauga needs to focus on niches that neighboring counties don’t have. Kennedy said while Wilkes and Caldwell counties have an advantage because of its proximity to interstate transportation lines, Watauga County has a quality of life and environment unmatched in the region. Welch added that Watauga’s niche is Appalachian State University.
“We have to find some way to tap into Appalachian State and grow what we already have within the base business community,” Welch said, adding that the university is the economic driver of the county.
Nathan Miller noted that ASU was just one important part of the community but added that all of the parts must work together for a vibrant business community. He said one reason the N.C. 194 property was sought was because of the cheap acreage. Nathan Miller said he didn’t like the old Watauga High School site, which the EDC identified as a viable location for a business park, because of the high value of the property and because it was located in the Town of Boone, where he has seen “development after development killed” because of regulations.
“I don’t have any good ideas,” Nathan Miller said. “In my opinion, the way to help economy is government gets out of the way. The county doesn’t have a lot of regulation. Also, the county isn’t in control of the economic center of the county.”
Yates’ comments echoed Nathan Miller’s and Welch’s – in the sense that he mentioned that the county should look at some partnership with the university and Appalachian Regional Healthcare Systems and also that the price per acre of the N.C. 194 was too good to pass up. (Yates and Nathan Miller were the only commissioners to vote to secure the property off of N.C. 194. At the time, Yates mentioned that while he was looking towards the future with this purchase, business owners should have to pay for a business park.)
While mentioning that there is “nothing wrong with going after” a business park, Blust asked what else the EDC does besides advocate for a business park. Miller mentioned that the EDC commission has collaborated with ASU to form ongoing entrepreneurial startup business classes, operates the Appalachian Enterprise Center to coordinate education and training events and established an online portal for prospective entrepreneurs to “look at we have to offer.”
Blust also asked if existing vacant properties available for sale on N.C. 105 would be suitable for a business park. EDC Director Joe Furman noted that those properties are primarily retail, expensive and would be inappropriate for the types of businesses sought to operate in a business park. Joe Miller mentioned that companies exporting products to the rest of the world wouldn’t be successful along N.C. 105.
Joe Miller said that there was two kinds of growth: exporting products out of the High Country and providing services that support existing activity in the High Country – tourism, retirement communities and the university.
Joe Miller noted that the EDC didn’t want to waste its time on pursuing a business park if the commissioners weren’t going to back its proposal.
Kennedy said the business park along N.C. 194 wasn’t “sold well” by the EDC to which Joe Miller retorted, “I’ve never heard before that the EDC should actively involve itself in the lobbying for any project.” Though, members of both boards did agree that the proposal could have benefited from a more extensive analysis of what exactly was going to built there and how the aesthetics of the buildings would fit into the surrounding landscape.
Boone Area Chamber President and EDC Member Dan Meyer jumped into the discussion because he wanted to make a point before leaving early for another meeting. He pointed out that the past two proposals the EDC brought to the commissioners were shot down – the $150,000 request for infrastructure costs for the new Appalachian Regional Healthcare Systems facility in Blowing Rock and the business park proposal along N.C. 194.
“You missed two opportunities to say you support, something that says we are interested in business, interested in the economy,” Meyer said. “What do you want us to do?”
The commissioners agreed that they didn’t want the EDC to “stop” what it has been doing all along. Nathan Miller mentioned that he agreed to meet with the EDC to help keep their “spirits up” and that he didn’t’ want them to feel “dejected.”
Asked for his two cents during the meeting, Furman said the meeting had been productive. He added that it sounds like the EDC has been on the right track. He also suggested that a master plan for an imaginary business park is needed.
Towards the end of the meeting, Joe Miller mentioned that EDC isn’t asking for a rubber stamp – just guidance. He also told the commissioners not to get frustrated when it brings a piece of property proposed for a business park and the commissioners look at the price tag. He mentioned that a one-quarter acre lot with a building on the U.S. 421 corridor outside of Boone cost nearly the same price as the 200 acres along N.C. 194 in between Todd and Boone.