Put Haywood County, North Carolina on your radar – you might just want to move there. The county’s community leaders go to great lengths to bring in new business and celebrate the good living you’ll find in this beautiful part of the state’s Mountain Region.
“The people are very friendly; we are a little laidback and it is a trustworthy community,” says CeCe Hipps, Haywood County Chamber of Commerce President for 15 years, about her county’s feel-good reputation. “There are a lot of things to do, with something going on every weekend.”
The Annual Apple Harvest Festival in October, organized by the County Chamber, offers the best apples (you won’t find a tastier Red Delicious), and brings 180 vendors offering arts and crafts, pottery, apple pies and tarts, with a chance to press your own apple cider and hand-crank some ice cream. It’s been named one of the “10 Best Fall Harvest Festivals in the Nation” for good reason.
In June, Pickin in the Park highlights local bluegrass musicians, and weekends in July are packed with events like the Folkmoot Festival, an international showcase of folk dancing that rotates through each of Haywood’s four municipalities – Maggie Valley, Claude, Canton and Waynesville, the county seat. The county is easy to get to, located within 100 miles of Asheville, Greenville and the Tennessee border, and has four major highways conveniently running through it.
As Hipps puts it, “Maggie Valley is the hub of tourism, Claude is a sleepy bedroom community, Canton is a mill town, and Waynesville is the business hub.”
Haywood draws tourists looking for a quiet respite from the city and an opportunity to explore the jaw-dropping vistas and trails of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. There’s hiking, fishing, bird-watching, zip-lining and plenty of golf. It’s naturally green here, too. All the water originates in the county, about a third of Haywood is right in the national park system, and there are forward-thinking initiatives in place to protect the natural beauty of the land. For example, a 400-acre site was recently contracted to a conservation group for developing the area and creating walking and biking trails, to give people more access to nature.
Beyond leisure and lifestyle attributes, the county is also making a name for itself through unique economic development programs that entice new startups, like the popular Gnarcissist sunglass company, and well-established businesses like the Hampton Inn which is currently setting up shop.
Haywood is home to the largest manufacturer in western North Carolina, Evergreen Packaging, which produces 75 percent of the fiber for Starbucks cups in North America. There’s also a new logistics company from Indianapolis coming in, along with the $12 million Abundant Labs facility that makes CBD oil.
“We are providing avenues for young professionals and entrepreneurs and being certified as an entrepreneur community,” Hipps says. “We’ve created a business-friendly model. We provide them with the information they need up front so they don’t have go digging. And we have an economist who can provide data on our community, which has been a very big plus.”
Hipps is leading the charge, so to speak, as Executive Director of the Haywood County Economic Development Council. She works closely with David Francis, Program Administrator for Economic Development, who was born and raised in Haywood on a farm that’s been in his family for generations. Now he wants to see the county prosper so that his three children will put down permanent roots.
“Haywood County is a hometown and high-tech community,” he says, comparing it to a modernized Mayberry, North Carolina in the 1960s’ TV comedy The Andy Griffith Show. “Our towns are Andy Griffith-approved. We still say hi to each other and wave at a stranger.”
With a greying population, one area of focus has been appealing to younger people, creating jobs so young adults don’t need to move away from their hometown to find employment, and providing incentives for young entrepreneurs. Now the business community is about even between millennials and baby boomers, and the county’s 60,000 population is growing. (Haywood is the 18th fastest-growing county in the state, which has 100 in total.)
Haywood’s unemployment currently sits at 3.2 percent, and there’s a population labor shed of 40,000 within a quick 15 minutes’ drive. The county also has some of the lowest business taxes in the U.S.
“We need to be the GPS for businesses when they start looking here and guide them through the process of the North Carolina tax system, environmental regulations and planning,” Francis says of the local Chamber of Commerce. “We can streamline the process for businesses, and they can see that when they meet with us. We can also help them with networking when they come here.”
Hipps and Francis will go to great lengths to get new business, even working on an archeological dig for a potential development site and consulting with members of the Cherokee Nation on the uncovered artifacts. They’re especially proud of the strategic 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 and the Asheville Chamber of Commerce has a far greater budget and resources to draw upon – which has been a huge win to help recruit new business and industry to the area, Hipps says. The partnership initiative has gained a lot of positive attention and a 2019 Chamber of the Year award for Asheville from the American Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives.
“People don’t look at county borders anymore; everything is regional,” Hipps says. “And we’ve had a good relationship with the people who are there in Asheville. It’s all about building good relationships.”
Haywood is also developing a job-ready workforce and was the first county in the state to set up an entrepreneurship program to link schools and new curricula with area employers. “We want to keep true to Haywood County,” Hipps says. “We want to make sure that clients are a good fit for the community. We want to protect our natural beauty to keep things safe. We want all the businesses to be involved in the Haywood community. And we want to stay true to who we are.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Francis, who holds Haywood near and dear. “When you grow up in a place as beautiful as Haywood County is, you want to keep that hometown feel for the next generation. That creates challenges but it also offers opportunities.”