CULLOWHEE -- Participants at a daylong conference at Western Carolina University examining Western North Carolina's economic future in the new millennium agreed Wednesday, Nov. 8, that the key to the mountain region's success lies with high technology and the information revolution.
"About half of all the economic growth in the United States in the last decade is because of the growth of the Internet and consumer electronics," said Rick Carlisle, N.C. Secretary of Commerce. "It's remarkable when you think about it. It is a true telecommunications revolution that's going on." Carlisle delivered the keynote address at the WCU conference, "Western North Carolina Regional 2000: Planning for the New Economy," attended by more than 500 students, residents, and leaders from the business, education and government sectors.
"The pace of change that we have seen in the last decade is probably unparalleled in our economic history. Despite that, the pace of change we're going to see over the next decade is going to be even greater," Carlisle said. "These new technologies are creating enormous new opportunities not just for urban North Carolina, but for rural North Carolina, as well."
Telecommunications, technology and training can help WNC overcome economic shortcomings, including the lack of large tracts of developable land sought by traditional manufacturing and the loss of 150,000 jobs in the state in the textiles and apparels industry in the 1990s, Carlisle said. Training and retraining of the state's labor force by community colleges and universities will play an integral role in the new economy, he said.
WCU Chancellor John Bardo pointed out that businesses no longer need to locate near major highways or in large cities. In the new economy, businesses can locate wherever there is high-speed Internet access and a pool of skilled workers. "The new economy is based not so much on location as it is on brain power," Bardo said. "New economy businesses tend to be clean, they pay well, and they are generally environmentally friendly."
Western is hoping to play a role in bringing those new economy businesses to WNC and in keeping the region's best and brightest from leaving the mountains to find work that pays a decent wage, he said. Toward that goal, WCU is partnering with other area higher education institutions to seek a biotechnology and genomics center, and is developing a "Millennial Campus" where private business and industry can tap university resources to produce scientific and technological innovations and spark economic development.
Several speakers at the conference suggested that such partnerships between educational institutions and private business are critical, and could even result in WNC's version of the Research Triangle Park. "Government, the private sector and education working together can assure that no one is left behind," said Ella Rusinko of the Appalachian Regional Commission. "Diverse partnerships are important to achieving success in the economic environment of today, which is based on digital and global competitiveness. The challenges our region faces are too big, too daunting for any single entity to overcome."
Rusinko said ARC plans to seek a $75 million federal appropriation for a special telecommunications and information technology initiative for Appalachia. "It will be aimed at ensuring that Appalachian residents have both the access and the capacity to embrace modern telecommunications and employment opportunities to build self-sufficient local entrepreneurial economies," she said.
As part of the day's activities, newly re-elected U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor received recognition from conference organizers for his role in economic development issues for WNC.
The conference, organized by Western's Public Policy Institute, was 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.
Other speakers were Mac Williams, economic director for the city of Asheville; Penny Smith, WCU associate professor of educational leadership and foundations; John "Jack" Cecil, president of Biltmore Farms and vice chairman of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors; N.C. Rep. Phil Haire; Ron Shiffler, dean of WCU's College of Business; Gordon Myers, vice president of Ingles Markets and chairman of the board of AdvantageWest; Billy Ray Hall, president of the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center; Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College; and Virgil Smith, president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times. The day concluded with participant recommendations for a report on economic development strategies for WNC. The report will be issued later this month.