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Community Conversations Visits Asheville

Tom Barkin speaks in Asheville, NC

The Richmond Fed’s Community Conversations program visited Asheville, N.C. recently to learn what has helped industries in the region continue to thrive during the pandemic.

From roundtable discussions to one-on-one visits with business and community leaders, Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin and Regional Executive for North Carolina and South Carolina Matthew Martin, came away with insight about the strategic thinking and pivots that have shored up the city’s infrastructure and business community over the past 18 months.

“Asheville is heavily dependent on tourism and saw significant impacts from Covid last year,” Martin said. “They are seeing a strong rebound this year and retain all those qualities that have always made it a desirable place to live or visit.”

According to business leaders in the Outdoor Outfitter industry, demand has remained positive for the bicycle parts, tents and other outdoor products they offer; and while many industries are struggling to find employees, this industry has been able to secure eager workers who enjoy the outdoors.

Some local manufacturing companies have faced worker shortages that align with the national trend.

Overall, however, the city of Asheville has remained an economic winner, due to its natural amenities and other local draws that have kept tourists and second home buyers coming to the region, Martin said.

The Biltmore Companies, for example, permanently changed the way they conducted business during the pandemic, by developing a registration process for house tours that limits the number of visitors in the house at any given time. The number of visitors has remained high, but is now more evenly spread out every week, which helps with staffing without harming revenues.

Meetings with the city’s Economic Development Coalition and with community bankers also revealed how changes in strategy, and the leveraging of available resources from foundation funding, helped the area stay the course.

One increasing challenge noted by local housing and development officials is that as homebuying interest in the area increases and housing prices rise, there is a growing lack of affordable housing, which is also needed to sustain the area’s success.

The Richmond Fed has noted this challenge in other areas of the Fifth District as well, Martin said, and will seek to learn more about potential solutions in Asheville and elsewhere.

“We’re going to go back to western North Carolina this year and probably next year to continue building our network there and understanding how we can help provide insight that helps address key issues in the region,” Martin said.

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