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Once Distressed, Jackson County Moves On

by Fred D. Baldwin

Ask Jim Gray, publisher of the weekly Sylva Herald and Ruralite, about the economy of Jackson County, North Carolina (of which Sylva is the county seat), and he first answers, "It's growing by leaps and bounds." Then his instinct for accurate reporting kicks in, and he corrects himself: "Well, not leaps. Steadily."

That's a fair summary of Jackson County's progress since 1981, when it appeared on the first "distressed county" list published by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Jackson County moved off the list in 1985. Since then the county's poverty and unemployment levels have remained higher and its per capita market income level lower than national averages, but improvements have been significant. With only about 30,000 people, it's still rural, but its population has increased an estimated 11 percent since 1990.

Some of this growth is happening because people outside the area value Jackson County's location and natural beauty. The county is also fortunate in its institutions, which include two colleges, a major hospital, and several large public-sector employers. But it's how these assets are being used that makes the recent history of the county worth telling.

Jackson County has changed and continues to change because its leadership has made long-term investments in three kinds of resources: physical infrastructure, institutional networks, and people, especially children and youths. Its leadership is also beginning to grapple, still somewhat tentatively, with the problems of managing growth. In current ARC terminology, the county's economic status is "transitional." In Jackson County, from Sylva's downtown streets to its elementary school classrooms, that bit of bureaucratese proves refreshingly apt.

Investing in Tourism

"Be sure you quote me on this," admonishes Brenda Oliver, Sylva's mayor. "The downtown merchants have been wonderful in their patience and long suffering with roads looking like a Third World country. But the plans are coming together now, and everybody's getting excited."

Oliver is talking about the renovation of Sylva's Main Street, which runs through the center of downtown. Scheduled for completion near the end of 1998, the project involves upgrading water and sewer lines, burying utility lines, and planting trees and building mini-gardens at every crosswalk. It's spearheaded by Sylva Partners in Renewal, a coalition composed mainly of local merchants. The effort has received support from the State of North Carolina's "Main Street Program" (which helps communities find resources for revitalization), ARC, and other sources.

"I've been here 66 years," says Sol Schulman, owner of a Main Street department store. "We'll have a beautiful Main Street. Now we're going to have an ideal little town. It was always good, but it's going to be better."

These investments by Sylva (and similar investments by the county's smaller municipalities) are part of an effort to promote tourism—one of the main goals outlined in a county strategic plan issued in 1991 under the title Jackson Tomorrow: Strategic Planning for Economic Development.

Tourism is indeed booming. Outside magazine once rated Jackson County "one of the 100 best counties in America" for scenic views, outdoor recreation, and livability. Sylva is about an hour's drive west of Asheville on U.S. 74/23 (Appalachian Corridor A, most of which was completed by the mid 1970s). The mountainous areas in the southern end of the county attract hiking and whitewater enthusiasts, as well as retirees, many of whom are affluent relative to the rest of the county's population. The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the county's eastern edge, and some of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies within its boundaries on the north. A nearby casino owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, opened in 1997, also draws tourists, although its net economic impact is difficult to assess.

For years, however, Sylva and the smaller towns did little to make themselves appealing. That's all changed. Boyd and Lynda Sossamon, also among Sylva's Main Street merchants, mention a number of other projects, including plans to develop a town watershed as a park.

"I think there's so much potential here," says Lynda. "We're about to come into our own."

Boyd also mentions Mill Street, which runs parallel to Main Street and is next on the list for a face-lift. Movie-makers have used shots of Mill Street to suggest small-town poverty. Once it's renovated, Boyd jokes in mock dismay, Sylva won't be able to cash in on looking run-down. His wife replies, "Maybe we can get Cinderella."

Partners in Business Development

In support of another strategic plan goal—business development—Jackson County has developed a tightly knit institutional network. It includes local governments and a long list of partners: the Jackson County Economic Development Commission (EDC); the Southwestern North Carolina Planning and Economic Development Commission (a council of governments, based in nearby Bryson City and serving seven western counties); the North Carolina Department of Commerce Southwestern Office, also in Bryson City; Nantahala Power and Light Company, whose headquarters are in Franklin (in Macon County, adjacent to the southwest edge of Jackson County); and, invariably high on everyone's list, the county's two colleges, Southwestern Community College, in Sylva, and Western Carolina University, in nearby Cullowhee.

There are federal partners, too, of course. Steve Eller, regional planner for the Southwestern Commission, produces a list going back many years that contains over two dozen projects in which ARC funds have been involved, most of them involving infrastructure development.

According to many Jackson County residents, the formation of effective partnerships started with the creation of a "Committee of 100" in the late 1980s. This alliance of political, business, and education leaders helped develop the strategic plan contained in Jackson Tomorrow, which resulted in the creation of the Jackson County EDC. The EDC has helped to coordinate economic development initiatives to support existing firms and attract new ones.

For example, the Ashley Company is a homegrown firm that employs about 100 workers who make customized jackets for stock-car racing teams and fancy hats for about 65 percent of the nation's marching bands. Its owner, William H. Schutters, credits a series of public-sector partnerships with keeping his company viable.

"We must have used every program available," says Schutters. "We used training money. We've borrowed money from local people and repaid it. We've been on the verge of extinction numerous times, but no one has ever given up on us."

The EDC has had some success in attracting business. When a nationally known furniture manufacturer closed its Jackson County branch plant, the EDC worked with the county to create the Jackson Development Corporation (JDC). Financing came from a revolving loan fund based on a Community Development Block Grant, from the Southwestern Commission, from the Industrial Development Fund (administered by the North Carolina Department of Commerce), and from a Jackson County bank. The JDC bought the furniture maker's facilities and 40-acre site, promptly leasing it to ClearWood L.L.C., a manufacturer of wood products for interior and exterior finishing. The ClearWood plant now employs approximately 40 workers. In addition, 14 acres of the original site are available for further development.

"It was a perfect fit," says Tamera Crisp, EDC director. "There was a lot of luck involved, but we were ready for it. Last year was a very busy year, and the EDC actually bought two buildings. We have [in addition to the site leased to ClearWood] an industrial building that we're very proud of, and that was a cooperative effort between the town and the county."

That building, now known as the Sylva-Jackson Industrial Park, occupies 48,500 square feet of a 15-acre tract in Sylva, previously owned by the Buster Brown children's clothing company. Crisp believes the EDC has excellent prospects for a new tenant.

Even so, Jackson County has merely managed to hold its own on manufacturing jobs, which account for 13 percent of all jobs in the county, about half the state average. But these jobs are less concentrated in textiles—"cut-and-sew" jobs, as they were called. The service sector is strong. Jackson County's second-largest employer, after Western Carolina University (WCU), is the Harris Regional Hospital, which accounts for nearly 800 jobs. It's a major asset that Southwestern Community College (SCC) is one of the most technically oriented of North Carolina's 58 community colleges. The college has strong programs in law enforcement and allied health fields. Last year it was within or near the top 10 in every state category of occupational training, from plumbing to computers.

Crisp also notes a new commitment to regionalism. For example, the lead applicant in an attempt to secure Empowerment Zone status is the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, acting in concert with Jackson, Swain, and Graham Counties.

A Commitment to Education

Perhaps the single most convincing evidence of Jackson County's long-term thinking is a commitment to education. Aware that low educational levels once handicapped the county's competitiveness, local business leaders have a "never again" attitude where school dropout rates are concerned. For example, Schutters, the owner of the company that makes band hats and fancy jackets, once discovered that many of his firm's workers had left school early. With the help of SCC, he provided them with basic literacy training. The county is an active participant in North Carolina's Smart Start, a program that provides high-quality preschool education, health care, and other family services for children under age six. (See "Kids Get a Smart Start in North Carolina" in the September–December 1996 issue of Appalachia.)

Jackson County educators and business leaders have pioneered a program called New Century Scholars that is being copied by other counties in North Carolina. It involves college scholarships, but everyone involved stresses that it is more than a financial assistance program. For the past four years, Jackson County sixth-grade teachers have joined in identifying up to 50 students each year whom they consider capable of doing good academic work but who, for financial or other reasons, are at risk of not achieving to their full potential. At the start of grade seven, these students are designated New Century Scholars. They (and their families) are informed that they will be able to complete a two-year degree at SCC absolutely free if, and only if, they meet certain conditions. They must stay in school through high school graduation, maintain passing grades and a clean disciplinary record, and perform an annual amount of community service. And there's more. After completing acceptable work at SCC, they can go on to complete a four-year degree at WCU—again without charge. It's a promise made possible by partnerships involving the public school system, the community college, the four-year college, and many local businesses.

Charles McConnell, formerly Jackson County superintendent of schools and now JobReady (a school-to-work program) coordinator for Jackson, Macon, and Swain Counties, says that he "went from one end of town to the other" asking private firms for contributions of $500 or more to make the program possible.

"I got 50 'yeses' just as fast as I could get in the door and take five minutes to describe the idea," McConnell says. "It's the easiest money I ever raised."

Jim Hartbarger, owner of the Jarrett House inn (in Dillsboro, a small community near Sylva), each year buys a classic car, auctions it off, and donates the proceeds to the program. He also solicits business donations for the scholarship program and says he's never been turned down. He recalls getting $20 from a man working in a shop: "He said, 'I don't make a lot of money. If this program had been around when I was in school, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now.' He meant that he'd have gotten an education and a better job."

The public schools support the program by providing counselors. New Century Scholars participate in team-building exercises and plan community service projects that become progressively more complex. They are brought into contact with businesses and corporate sponsors.

"What's good about the program," says Schutters, "is that it's got accountability. You're not just putting money in for a kid, but you're establishing personal contact, doing some mentoring. They're being told—maybe for the first time in their lives—'You're a special person who can go places.' I see their confidence developing: 'Maybe I can do that. Maybe I can get a college degree.' "

Looking Ahead

Despite its unity on many issues, Jackson County has had its share of controversies. Many involved tradeoffs between economic development and environmental preservation-one of the elements that makes Jackson County's development possible. It's hardly a new problem; the January–April 1984 issue of Appalachia carried an analysis of battles provoked by ski resort construction ("Mountaintop Construction in North Carolina Sparks Controversy"). But residents prefer the problems of managing growth to the problems of poverty.

"We've had some pretty far-thinking folks in local government," says Daniel Allison, president of a GM dealership in Sylva and a member of the EDC. He adds, choosing his words carefully: "We once had leadership that cared about doing the right thing but to some extent were like caretakers. But I think that, as government got more complicated, it attracted some people who were interested in looking ahead."

In short, Jackson County people are pleased that their economy is diversified, proud of the growth of their colleges, and proud of the new attractiveness of Jackson County communities. Many express special pride in the New Century Scholars program and its phenomenal level of local business support. They hope that the program will induce a lot of the next generation to remain in the area. And—just in case you may have missed the point—they'll mention again and again that the New Century Scholars program isn't mainly about money but about developing community spirit. They want you to know that in a county that's transitional in so many ways, community spirit is a constant.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.