The engine of economic development has gotten a tune-up in Haywood County, North Carolina. Community leaders have partnered with their urban neighbors to recruit and welcome both start-ups and well-established companies to a very special part of the state’s Mountain Region.
Think of a postcard-perfect setting: the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina, river valleys, forest trails and vibrant small towns that offer the amenities of a larger city. Haywood County is a beautiful, mountainous county that is pure tourist gold – and a magnet for new business and aspiring entrepreneurs.
“You can see the stars here,” says David Francis, born and raised on the farm that’s been in his family for generations. “We have a great quality of life – the outdoors, country air, friendly people who say hello to each other on the street.” Francis says he wouldn’t have wanted to raise his three kids anywhere else but Haywood County.
And now he’s working hard to create jobs and opportunities so the young people of the county can make a good livelihood without moving away. He wants them to enjoy the good life here, too, just as much as he does.
Francis is Program Administrator for Economic Development, the right-hand man for the driven and charismatic CeCe Hipps, Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development President for 14 years, leading new programs, initiatives and partnerships that have truly put Haywood County on the map. And the workforce, the talent and the county demographics are all trending in a very positive direction.
“We have a lot going on and we’re doing things that you don’t necessarily see happening in smaller, rural counties. That’s very satisfying for us and exciting,” Hipps says, adding the past year has been a whirlwind of activity.
One minute she’s stopping in at a popular bakery for treats for her staff to see them through a long day’s preparation for a weekend festival, the next 30 minutes she’s giving advice to the bakery owner when asked about making some changes to the business.
“Every day is different, you just never know,” she says, about helping local merchants thrive. “Really, it comes down to people, trust and the relationships you build.”
There’s plenty of new building and expansion underway, thanks to forward-thinking people like Hipps and Francis and progressive thinking county and municipal leaders, as well as the county’s location and favorable attributes. ‘Why would someone want to sit in rush hour traffic or pay for parking?’ asked Hipps. There is more affordable property, great schools (ranked 11th in the state), shopping, restaurants and nature at your doorstep in Haywood County.
Haywood County is made up of scenic natural wonders, such as the highest number of mountain peaks over 6,000 feet in any single county east of the Rockies, three national parks, and the communities of Maggie Valley, Waynesville, which is the county seat, Canton and Clyde. It’s located within 30 miles of Asheville, within 100 miles of Greenville, South Carolina and an easy two and one half hours’ drive to Atlanta, Georgia.
With a population of 62,000, the county’s unemployment sits at just 3.2 percent, and there is a population labor shed of 40,000. In addition, Haywood County has one of the lowest state tax rates.
One of the county’s largest employers, paper product manufacturer Evergreen Packaging in Canton, was recently named Business of the Year for greening its processes to the tune of $50 million (which includes a $12 million state grant). Starbucks manufactures its cups at the facility and the iconic coffee retailer has just opened its fourth store in Haywood County. There’s also a new Publix grocery store coming to a prime spot in Waynesville, and another big win is a Hampton Inn slated for completion in 2019.
“We have a lot of recognizable brands here that people don’t always expect to see in a smaller community,” says Francis. The large brands help draw traffic to all the unique shops and services in the county.
The Haywood Chamber of Commerce has a unique partnership program with the economic development division of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, the main city and county seat of Haywood’s urban neighbor to the east, Buncombe County. (Buncombe has a population four times the size of Haywood.) Since January 2018, they’ve collaborated to recruit new business and industry to the area, which has been a huge benefit for Haywood County, Hipps says. “The partnership allows the opportunity to see more choices for companies that we would have not heard about and stands to become a model for regional economic development.”
Clark Duncan with the Asheville Chamber agrees this is about “creating a regional approach to economic development, which is important. Buncombe is much bigger, of course, and has more resources, technology and financial support than we do. So we’re working together to make the entire region grow. What is good for Haywood County is good for Buncombe County and vice versa.”
Indeed, there are a number of parcels of land around Haywood County that are ripe for development, which is where the power of Asheville’s marketing and communications reach prospective investors. Haywood is also focused on priming the existing workforce to fill new jobs. It was in fact the first county in America to become a Certified Entrepreneurial Community.
Hipps and her team are also researching grant opportunities to establish a business center hub to offer resources and mentoring. The welcome mat is out for established companies and homegrown talents alike, such as Gnarcissist Gear, to set up shop. Two snowboarders launched this line of affordable sunglasses and apparel for sports enthusiasts, and are rapidly gaining a following. Millennials are reported to be the new job creators in the next five to 10 years, and Haywood County is ahead of the curve in recognizing and celebrating this trend.
Indeed, Haywood Chamber events are drawing more young people who are looking for ways to turn their passions into businesses. Hipps says Haywood is just seeing the start of the next generation of entrepreneurs. And by encouraging them through progressive programs, the county is primed to become a strong business hub that holds true to the great things that come with living in a relaxed, rural setting.