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Western North Carolina Summit Highlights Opportunities

Speaker addresses an audience at the Western North Carolina summit

The Richmond Fed partnered last week with two rural-focused organizations to host the WNC Rebounding Stronger Summit in Cherokee, North Carolina.

About 150 leaders of civic, business, academic, workforce and policymaking organizations and institutions attended the event, which included remarks from North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper.

The Southwestern Commission of the Council of Governments and the Land of Sky Regional Council were co-organizers of the daylong program, which took place on August 9 in a community located about 60 minutes west of Asheville.

Russ Harris, executive director of the Southwestern Commission, noted that in his years-long service to western North Carolina, this was his first time experiencing such solution-oriented interest in the region.

“We planned this event to bring people together to hear some of the innovative strategies that address the complicated issues we face,” said Harris, specifically noting the region’s limited access to broadband and lack of affordable housing. “While it doesn’t happen as fast as we would like, strengthening and expanding the partnerships of organizations working on these issues will, ultimately, be a huge asset for western North Carolina.”

Richmond Fed leaders who helped organize the event agreed.

“Part of the conversation we heard was that before COVID-19 there was always talk about not having enough resources for broadband or education,” said Richmond Fed senior economist Laura Ullrich. “Now that there are resources available, the conversation has turned to how to deploy the funds that are out there.”

Co-hosting the summit aligned with the Bank’s efforts to provide support to small towns and rural communities across the Fifth District, noted Matthew Martin, regional executive for North Carolina and South Carolina.

“We don’t get west of Asheville very often, and this summit allowed us to develop a lot of new contacts and learn a lot about this region,” he said.

Along with hearing from Governor Cooper, participants were welcomed by Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and by Kelli R. Brown, chancellor of  
Western Carolina University. Patrick Woodie, president of the NC Rural Center, delivered the morning keynote message, and Ted Abernathy, managing partner of Economic Leadership LLC, served as the afternoon speaker.

Panel discussions organized by Ullrich and Richmond Fed Community Development Manager Erika Bell focused on digital infrastructure needs, workforce development and fostering labor force participation, and current best practices for innovation, entrepreneurial activity and small business development.

Other participants included Sarah Grymes, vice president of Impact for Housing for the Dogwood Health Trust; Maggie Woods, with the North Carolina Department of Information Technology; Scott Hamilton, president & CEO, Golden LEAF Foundation; and Richmond Fed regional economist Adam Scavette.

‘’One of the panelists noted that it will take an ecosystem of organizations, with everybody working together, for things to improve and to move the needle,” Ullrich said.
Bell shared: “A theme running through the two afternoon panels was that education and innovation are critical to businesses’ success, and that the grit and resilience of western North Carolinians is the foundation.”

While this was an inaugural conference for the region, Richmond Fed leaders said the relationships formed during the planning and orchestration of the event will be nurtured and will provide Bank leaders with more opportunities to visit the region.

Nathan Ramsey, executive director of Land of Sky, is delighted. “This conference has allowed us to strengthen and build partnerships, which helps everyone rise. The summit was a great example of how mountain people can come together to help make a better future, and we appreciate the support we’re receiving from leaders across the state. ”

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