WEST JEFFERSON-Over the past year a group of local leaders have quietly met to consider where we are as a county, but more importantly, where we’re going in the future.
Dubbed ‘Ashe Vision,’ the project’s ambitious aim is to chart the smartest strategic course for Ashe County. Think of it as a way to make sure the future remains bright for the coolest corner of North Carolina.
Here’s what you need to know.
A fledgling effort
Ashe Vision officially got off the ground little more than a year ago, according to the group’s president Josh Roten, but Ashe Vision can trace its roots back farther to a pep talk given by Blue Ridge Electric CEO and Doug Johnson at a chamber of commerce luncheon in March 2014. Johnson reflected on the success Caldwell County has enjoyed in recent years thanks to its own strategic planning process – more on that below – and reminded leaders that Ashe must create its own opportunities to grow, listing the New River, Wilkes Community College, the Blue Ridge Parkway and our friendly, caring and reliable citizens among our greatest assets.
The group launched informally with just a handful of members in the months following Johnson’s remarks, but officially formed Ashe Vision last spring with a 21-member board, according to Roten. That board’s membership now reads like a virtual Who’s Who of local leaders and includes Roten, Ashe Vision Vice President Michael Lea, Bob Washburn as treasurer, Kay Sexton as secretary, along with Greg Warmuth, Sam Yearick, Chris Robinson, Carolyn Shepherd, Scott Turnmyre, Brantley Price, Edward Hinson, Patricia Calloway, Gary Brown, Laura Lambeth, Jane Lonon, Cathy Barr, Jimmy Blevins, Perry Miller, Alan Merck and Cabot Hamilton. The former Superintendent of Ashe County Schools Todd Holden is also a member of the group until he officially departs for his new posting with Madison County Schools at the end of June.
So what’s the big idea behind Ashe Vision?
Lea said in an April interview the group’s ultimate goal is to make Ashe County a better place to live. That means embracing our strengths and shoring up our weaknesses as best we can, he said. “Our goal is to really look ahead and find what we need to be doing – or maybe avoiding – to make this a better place to live for everybody,” Lea said.
There might be no better time
Ashe Vision Board Member and County Manager Sam Yearick has a simple way to express why we shouldn’t squander the strategic planning process. “The state is opening us up both from the air and on the ground,” Yearick said in previous interviews. “They’ve put a lot of money into our airport which is going to make it easier to get to us by air, and they’re pouring millions into the widening of 221.” Yearick said that could open up new opportunities for locals and it would pay to do our homework now to make sure we’re ready to capitalize on them.
Similar efforts have paid off elsewhere
Roten said Ashe leaders were receptive to Johnson’s “embrace your opportunities” speech in 2014 because Johnson had helped lead a similar – wildly successful – effort just off the mountain in Lenoir. That project was dubbed Caldwell 20/20, and first got off the ground in 2008, according to its president Deborah Murray. “When we started, we realized that offshoring had really taken a toll on what had become a pretty singular economy, a singular engine in furniture and textiles that were closely related,” Murray said. “Of course we didn’t know then we were in the middle of the Great Recession. If ever timing was important for what we were doing, it was right then.”
It’s about the long haul
Murray said in the case of Caldwell County, things got much worse before they got better. At the height of the county’s unemployment crisis, roughly 17 percent of the local workforce was without a job. But she said Caldwell 20/20 continued its work and laid down the structures that have contributed to its new found success. Today the county’s unemployment rate is roughly six percent and the county’s vacant square footage has shrunk from more than six million square feet to less than 1 million square feet. Since the founding of Caldwell 20/20, the county has seen more than 2,000 new jobs created that didn’t exist pre-recession.
What were the big takeaways?
Murray said patience, smart planning and persistence were among the keys to Caldwell’s recent success. She said the county has also placed an emphasis on building the structures and partnerships it would need to grow and compete. “You have to look at the entire thing holistically,” Murray said. “You can’t just grow industry and expect improvements in education, wage, retail, and housing and building inventories. You have to build the partnerships that you can scale, that you can rely on to help you grow and be more competitive.”
Structures that work
So what do those partnerships look like in practice? Murray pointed to Caldwell Hiring, the region’s largest, longest-running job fair as a key success. The group’s 12th career fair in April, for instance, featured 49 employers looking to hire some 2,000 people, Murray said, but it takes dozens of volunteers to staff those events and help job seekers find what they’re looking for. Another success has been in convincing teachers, parents and students that advanced manufacturing looks nothing like drudgery, but that only happened after the group created a program to get teachers and administrators out of schools and into the industries that are most likely to employ graduating students. “Every year we’re having more people come back to us and say, ‘I was telling my kids they had to leave here to find a high paying job – and I was wrong,” Murray said. “But that’s about changing culture and helping people see what’s out there.”
Murray feels good about Ashe
Murray said the key lesson from Caldwell 20/20 is that building relationships and consensus matters. “I met with the Ashe group early on and I feel like they’ve got some talented people that are going to work through this process,” Murray said. “But what Ashe will experience will be different from us. We were at absolute rock bottom when we started but when you bring everybody to the table and everybody decides together, ‘This is it. This is what we’re doing,’ the end result will be much stronger.”
It’s time for your voice to be heard
While Ashe Vision has shunned the spotlight to date, that’s about to change. The group announced this week it will host a series of community meetings in early June to gauge what action people believe Ashe County should take.
Meeting locations and schedule
•June 2, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.
Blue Ridge Elementary School
5778 NC-88, Warrensville
•June 7, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.
Mountain View Elementary School
2789 US-221, Jefferson
•June 9, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.
Westwood Elementary School
4083 US-221S, West Jefferson
“Your voice needs to be heard concerning the future of Ashe County,” according to a release from Ashe Vision. “Receiving ideas and feedback from our communities is critical to our success. We want you to become a part of a team creating the Ashe of tomorrow.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.