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Western Carolina University has joined a regional collaborative that plans to use a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to boost an already thriving Western North Carolina outdoor recreation industry to an even higher level. The $940,000 ARC grant will be combined with $787,000 in local funds for a project titled “Growing Outdoors: A Regional Approach to Expanding WNC Outdoor Industry and Jobs.”

The initiative will target aligning regional resources to meet the industry’s needs and promoting its growth throughout the region. At WCU, the project will result in new academic offerings to support the industry’s workforce demands, said Arthur Salido, WCU’s executive director of community and economic engagement and innovation.

The partnership receiving the grant is led by Mountain BizWorks, a nonprofit community development financial institution certified by the U.S. Treasury, and also includes Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC, Burke Development Inc., Graham County Economic Development, Mitchell County Economic Development Commission, Southwestern Commission, Natural Capital Investment Fund and the N.C. Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. Many other partners will be engaged during the project, which is expected, over the next five years, to result in 35 new outdoor businesses and the expansion of 100 others, training for 125 students in new outdoor degree programs, the creation of at least 150 jobs, and $10 million in new business investment.

Details about WCU’s new outdoor-related academic programs aren’t ready to be announced, but some of them could begin by next fall, Salido said. They will range from certificate programs to new concentrations in existing programs, as well as new degree offerings. The university is creating two “industry liaison” positions to ensure that new academic programs are meeting industry needs, and those positions will be filled by Wes Stone, associate professor in WCU’s Department of Engineering and Technology, and Andy Coburn, associate director of the university’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. 

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