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Jackson County ranked second in nation for areas to start new businesses

By Geoff Cantrell

Aerial photo of downtown Sylva


Jackson County and the unincorporated community of Cullowhee surrounding Western Carolina University have been ranked as the nation’s second most economically dynamic “micropolitan area” of 50 profiled in a report by the Heartland Forward, an institute for economic development.

A micropolitan area is designated by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget as one or more adjacent counties that have at least one urban core area between 10,000 and 50,000 in population, with adjacent territory having a high degree of social and economic integration with the core. The Cullowhee micropolitan statistical area reaches beyond the immediate location of the WCU campus to include all of Jackson County.

The second place ranking is noteworthy, said Arthur Salido, WCU’s executive director of economic development and regional partnerships, especially when considering the other, better known micropolitan areas on the list, such as Bozeman, Montana; Breckenridge, Colorado; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

“WCU plays an important part in regional economic development primarily through the work of faculty and students who partner with organizations and individuals in a variety of ways, such as through internships, applied research, capstone projects, economic impact studies and market analyses, external funding opportunities and consulting,” Salido said. “Our faculty and students provide the talent and innovation needed in Western North Carolina and across the state. Our impacts are being recognized nationally in this latest Heartland Forward report.”

The rankings, made by Jonas Crews, Ross DeVol, Richard Florida and Dave Shideler for the institute, were derived from metrics that reflect factors such as job growth, wage and income gains, and the proportion of total jobs at “young firms” – the ratio of employment at firms five years or younger.

In an executive summary, the authors stated “the key to long-term economic success lies in developing environments that are conducive for entrepreneurs to start and scale up their firms. Communities must take a holistic approach to build their entrepreneurial ecosystems, and they must be inclusive. It is the ability to connect and engage the elements of an ecosystem as efficiently as possible to maximize job creation. Young firms and the entrepreneurial ecosystems that spawned and nurtured them determine the economic destiny of communities.”

Nick Breedlove, executive director of the Jackson County TDA, agreed with that assessment.

“The same traits that make Jackson County an attractive place to live, play and work make it the ideal location to start or expand a business,” Breedlove said. “With access to a world-class fiber-optic network and the necessary infrastructure in place, it’s clear why Heartland Forward named Jackson County to its ‘Top 50’ list. Employers rely on the quality of life in our community to grow and attract workers, and that quality of life is unparalleled. Jackson County is within minutes of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With a low cost of living and the ability to be a day’s drive from half of the U.S. population, it makes sense to locate a business in Jackson County.”

Cullowhee and Jackson County were ranked as the nation’s 13th most economically dynamic “micropolitan area” in a similar report released last year by the Walton Family Foundation.

WCU’s community and economic engagement and innovation efforts create partnerships that link university, nonprofit, government and industry resources to address regional and economic development needs primarily in the 16 westernmost counties served by WCU through its Cullowhee campus, Cherokee Center and Asheville area instructional site at Biltmore Park.

In his role at the university, Salido undertakes both activities designed to boost WCU’s position as a resource for the community and for strategies to foster its efforts in regional economic development. For more information, contact him at or 828.227.2587.

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