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Community, Resiliency and Innovation in Western North Carolina

President Tom Barkin visiting Western North Carolina

Western North Carolina is known for stunning mountain views, the eclectic tourist hotspot Asheville, and the opulent former residency of the Vanderbilts, the Biltmore Estate. But, as our Community Conversations team learned as they traveled an hour west of Asheville to places like Jackson County and the Qualla Boundary, Western North Carolina is also home to a strong sense of community, resiliency and innovation.

During a recent visit to the area, Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin, Regional Executive Matthew Martin and Community Development Regional Manager Erika Bell met with business, civic and county leaders to gain insights into economic strengths and opportunities for the area.

Resiliency and Innovation in a Time of Uncertainty

In 2023, the closure of a major paper plant in Canton, North Carolina, left approximately 1,100 employees displaced. Despite the potential for devastation, the region swiftly rallied, led by organizations like Dogwood Health Trust, a local foundation dedicated to enhancing the health and well-being of Western North Carolina communities, which stepped forward to provide temporary health coverage for those affected by the closure. This forward-thinking investment bolstered financial stability and mitigated potential hardships for individuals and the area as a whole.

“Remarkably, current unemployment rates in the region are lower than when the plant was operational,” noted Martin. “We heard from those we spoke with that the majority of displaced workers have found new employment, undergone retraining for alternative career paths or have transitioned into retirement.”

The Big Picture: There’s Still a Need for Affordable Housing and Childcare

Despite recent successes, attracting and retaining a skilled workforce amid ongoing industrial growth remains a pressing concern for Western North Carolina communities. Most notable is the area’s need for improved access to affordable housing and childcare options. For example, a recent article published by the Richmond Fed indicates that the rural rental housing supply has decreased by 5% in North Carolina since 2016.

In yet another show of the region’s can-do spirit, efforts are underway at both the state and local levels to address these needs. Area employers like Western Carolina University and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort are helping surface solutions for the issue of workforce housing, while a similar effort is underway to expand in-home childcare options after the recent closure of local childcare facilities.

“Like all rural areas, we face problems that stem from lacking economies of scale and capacity,” said Russ Harris, executive director of the Southwestern Commission in Sylva, North Carolina. “But working together as a region, we have been able to make significant progress toward addressing complex issues, like access to high-speed internet. We are a little earlier in our efforts to address issues, like childcare, housing and substance use disorder, but we are confident that we can see similar success in those areas with a group of dedicated partners committed to working together to find solutions.”

Building the Future of Workforce Development

The team ended their visit with a trip to Western Carolina University (WCU) that highlighted the school’s role as a leader in regional workforce development. Through discussions with Chancellor Kelli R. Brown and a fireside chat with students hosted by Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin, the Community Conversations team gained insights into the economy and the state of the workforce, underscoring the region’s commitment to innovation, growth and economic prosperity.

“[WCU is] in tune with the job needs of the region, and they’re able to effectively expand their programming based on those needs,” said Martin. “For example, they recently received funding from the state to grow their engineering department, and they hope to similarly expand their nursing program in the near future.”

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Jim Strader (804) 697-8956 (804) 332-0207 (mobile)