CULLOWHEE -- Western North Carolina must take steps to ensure that future economic development efforts in the region do not undermine the health of a natural environment already aching from the growing pains of progress and a mountain heritage threatened by homogenization.
That was among the recommendations of participants at a recent conference at Western Carolina University examining strategies to help the mountain region meet the economic challenges of the 21st century. The recommendations are included in a policy report issued this week by WCU's Public Policy Institute, which organized last month's conference, "Western North Carolina Regional 2000: Planning for the New Economy."
"Overall, conference participants were concerned with ecological and cultural sustainability, and emphasized the need for ecologically friendly' biotechnology and digital industries," said Gordon Mercer, director of the Public Policy Institute. "Participants stressed the desire to attract businesses that are sustainable and environmentally clean, with industries that do not deplete or pollute natural resources."
A WNC version of the Research Triangle Park, with colleges and universities providing "intellectual capital" and other assets to attract business and industry to the mountains, could play a major role in the economic development of the region, conference participants said. Should such an entity become reality, it should be designed as an "environmentally safe eco-development park," according to the policy recommendations, and it should be based on "high technology that is environmentally friendly."
By tapping into new economy industries made possible by the Internet and expanding telecommunications infrastructure, WNC could avoid what some conference participants called the "negative consequences of change, such as increased traffic, pollution and rising land costs."
The policy report also calls for:
-- An increase in cooperative regional partnerships between business, education, government, and citizens'
-- Development of trust between traditional mountain people and newcomers to the region.
-- Exploration of the concept of multi-county business parks, with communities participating across county lines.
-- Efforts to increase funding for the region's infrastructure, including highways and mass transit.
-- Development of customized business and technology instruction in schools, colleges and universities, including the identification of new curricula to respond to regional needs in the new economy.
More than 500 students, residents, and leaders from the business, education and government sectors attended the November conference, designed to give regional leaders and residents an opportunity to discuss three main topics -- grassroots economic development, regional strategies and trends in economic development, and the rural and regional challenge in economic development. Following the day of discussion, conference participants divided into groups to develop policy recommendations for the region.
The event was co-sponsored by Western's Public Policy Institute and Mountain Resource Center, AdvantageWest, the city of Asheville, and the Asheville Citizen-Times.