All too often it operates in the background of county government.
It’s one of those departments you don’t know you need, until you need it.
But, when a prospective new industry comes knocking at Ashe County’s door, it is the Department of Economic Development that answers the door and shows them in.
“Economic development involves many different things,” said Ashe County Manager Dr. Pat Mitchell, who is also responsible for the county’s economic development initiatives.
Its primary focus in Ashe County over the last decade, as one manfacturer after another has closed its doors, has been to attempt to entice willing industries to utilize the empty facilities and well-trained workforce.
But, for the most part, those industries just don’t come knocking. They have to be found and convinced Ashe County is right for them.
Mitchell gets leads on industries looking to relocate/expand from the N.C. Division of Commerce and from Advantage West, an economic development group that serves the 23 westernmost counties in North Carolina.
“I will respond to an industry lead through those organizations,” said Mitchell. Along with following leads, Mitchell sometimes initiates discussions with business leaders who could benefit by moving into Ashe County’s empty factory buildings.
“I can respond to a lead or a question I have gotten,” said Mitchell, “or I can cold-call for someone when I think they may have use for those buildings.”
Mitchell, however, does not like using generic county information or a rehearsed sales pitch to recruit businesses.
“We talk to them individually and see what their specific needs are,” said Mitchell.
Another tool that helps recruit businesses to an area is community development, what Mitchell calls “public infrastructure.” This includes good medical offices, good schools, a good library system, and a clean environment.
Mitchell recounted one of her first projects involving economic development - the recruitment of an Asheville aerospace industry called Smith’s Aviation, which eventually became GE Aviation. Mitchell said maintaining public infrastructure was key to recruiting Smith’s Aviation.
According to Mitchell, the two questions asked by representatives from Smith’s Aviation were “What is your hospital facility like?” and “What about your schools?” When representatives were attracted to the quality of Ashe County’s public infrastructure, Smith’s Aviation relocated to West Jefferson.
“(Public infrastructure) is a sign of a progressive community,” said Mitchell.
Although, economic development isn’t just about recruiting businesses to the area. According to Mitchell, economic development involves many different factors and activities.
In 2008, when Leviton, an electrical and lighting component manufacturer, shut down two of three plants in Ashe County, Mitchell lobbied to see if Leviton would donate the buildings to the county. After a year of negotiations, Leviton agreed to donate the empty buildings.
“Having control of these buildings helps us market them,” said Mitchell.
On April 30, 2011, Gates Rubber Company, a sister company of Leviton, temporarily moved into the “Jefferson building” that once housed a Leviton office.
Even though Gates moved out of the Jefferson building on Sept. 8, 2012, the rubber company made several equipment upgrades during their brief stay.
Mitchell said it was sad to see Gates leave the Jefferson building, but the county now has an upgraded facility to offer other industries hoping to relocate to Ashe County.
Mitchell also said the county does offer economic incentives to businesses on a case-by-case basis.
“They are always performance-based incentives, meaning that if the company does not “perform” and meet the commitment they have made, we do not pay the incentive. An incentive is based on the number of jobs created and the capital investment involved,” said Mitchell.
Also, according to Mitchell, the county is never “revenue neutral,” meaning the county will always take in more tax revenue from a business than the incentive the county offers.
“I personally view economic incentives as an investment in your community; it is an investment that will bring jobs to a community and equipment or buildings that are taxable,” said Mitchell.