By David Rogers. February 23, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — There is more than a little bit of irony in Blowing Rock being second home to some of the Southeast U.S.’s most affluent people. From the Piedmont to the coastal plains of the South, people with means flock to the Crown of the Blue Ridge to escape the oppressive heat of summer, from off the mountain every year.
Why irony? Because Blowing Rock calls Watauga County home and, according to IndexMundi.com, Watauga County has among the highest percentage number of its residents living in poverty of any of the 100 counties in North Carolina. At 31.3%, Watauga County has the third highest percentage of people living in poverty, behind only Scotland County (32.3%) and Robeson County (31.7%). And it is almost double the number statewide, which is a little more than 17%.
The issue of regional poverty very much hits home, too. We’ve seen reports that more than 20% of Blowing Rock School students qualify for a school lunch subsidy of some kind. Blowing Rock CARES, a 501(c)3 organization run entirely by volunteers, was started in 2009 at Blowing Rock School to aid at-risk students and their families with food, clothing, and utility bills. The organization thrives today from Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church thanks to community largesse and, in particular, contributions from a wide variety of groups like The Rotary Club of Blowing Rock and business-based efforts by companies such as Makoto’s restaurant, The Rock Sports Bar & Grill, and Chetola Mountain Resort, to name a few. As a result of those community efforts, Blowing Rock CARES is able to help hundreds of needful local families every month.
But as the old Chinese proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Periodic economic hardship is a fact of life everywhere, but a good measure of the economic hardship faced each year by so many Blowing Rock and Watauga County residents could be eliminated if only we had a more vibrant, “year-round” economy offering more than minimum wage jobs.
Historically, economic development has been a challenge for Watauga County because of its mountain geography. Commercial train service featured narrow gauge “Tweetsie” from 1881 until about 1950, but with the absence of rail and an airport, and until recently only two-lane highway transportation, industry has been limited mostly to small-scale agriculture, i.e. Christmas trees, and lumber.
Watauga has the third highest percentage of people living in poverty.
And of course tourism and higher education. The biggest employer is Appalachian State University. There is a sprinkling of niche manufacturers who call the High Country home in spite of its challenges, most notably Hospitality Mints (candy), Charleston Forge (furniture), U.S. Buildings (steel buildings), Carroll Companies (furnishings, apparel) and Goodnight Brothers (food processing).
From an economic development standpoint, what has been missing is any meaningful initiative to promote entrepreneurship and the capital investment that usually comes with it. Thankfully, that may be changing and people interested in promoting the growth and development of Blowing Rock and the High Country have an opportunity to participate, to make change happen.
Back in 1971, what we know today as “Silicon Valley” was little more than a scattering of smaller towns and agricultural lands near a large California university, Stanford. Similarly, it wasn’t until the early 1950s that regional leaders envisioned Research Triangle Park as today’s North Carolina hub of innovation and put an action plan together to make RTP actually happen.
Real economic development means having a sufficient number of believers investing capital in others’ entrepreneurial dreams.
So how did they, along with other technology centers in Seattle, Boston, San Diego, Austin, Atlanta, Denver, and a host of others around the world evolve as world-beaters when it comes to innovation and transform their respective geographies into economic hotspots?
Of course it began with one or more regional leaders’ vision, but then it especially takes building a culture and infrastructure that nurtures entrepreneurship within this area. As important as anything, that means having a sufficient number of believers investing capital in others’ entrepreneurial dreams.
Today, Silicon Valley is home to many of the world’s largest, most successful and most innovative high-tech companies. Thirty-nine Fortune 1000 companies have their headquarters there. And thousands of start-ups trace their beginnings to the venture capital finding its way to Silicon Valley, which now commands roughly a third of all venture and angel capital invested each year in the United States.
From pharmaceuticals and esoteric medical testing to high tech semiconductor solutions, RTP investments catapult entrepreneurs from the likes of North Carolina State, Duke, and UNC-Chapel Hill, among others. In recent years, initiatives to promote entrepreneurship in neighboring Durham have resulted in that area becoming a hotbed of new company growth. Since just 2008, Durham attracted more than $2.28 billion in economic development growth, including more than 6,000 new jobs and now a total of more than 260 technology companies in the Durham area.
The fund organizers aim to deliver attractive returns to investors while creating good, high-paying jobs…
Watauga County and the High Country have terrific universities in Appalachian State and Lees-McRae, but the region has proven more of a “brain drain” over the last many decades as their graduates have mostly moved out of the area to find jobs or start companies where they can attract capital.
We now have an opportunity to change that trend. Heaven forbid that someone finds a way to attract a new Boeing or Toyota manufacturing plant to the land behind Speckled Trout, but in today’s world you don’t need an industrial giant with a big carbon footprint to nurture economic development.
Opportunities abound in nurturing “green”, high growth businesses leveraging the Internet, digital communications, and the ongoing need for high performance computer software. From one-woman manufacturer reps operating from an in-residence office, to companies like ECR Software, the highly successful Boone-based company with award-winning retail automation solutions serving customers nationwide (ranked in Inc. magazine’s list of fastest growing private companies in the U.S. with more than $24 million in revenue in 2016), the High Country has shown that it has the potential to become an economic hotspot if only the resources are available, including start-up capital.
And here is the good news. The region’s first effort at developing an angel investment fund has been launched and broken ground on initial funding. High Country Impact Fund is now evaluating investment opportunities in start-up companies putting down their roots in this region.
But it is only just a start and the effort must grow if it is to truly have an impact. A strong core group of investors are already committed as members of the fund. The fund organizers aim to deliver attractive returns to investors, and create good, high-paying jobs in the High Country region. The fund is member-managed, meaning that the member investors make investment decisions on behalf of the fund, while individual members have an opportunity to invest more on a deal-by-deal basis.
Whether you are a full-time resident or one of those seasonal residents just coming up for the summer or fall, think about how much better your High Country experience would be if the region is thriving, economically. More restaurants. More shopping alternatives. More cultural events and attractions. More entertainment and recreation options. All of that comes with a vibrant local economy.
For more information about High Country Impact Fund and how you can participate in this important initiative to promote entrepreneurship and economic development in the High Country, contact by email, email@example.com or by calling 828-278-9306.