WEST JEFFERSON-Ashe County’s new strategic planning process has cleared its first hurdles but more are on the way.
Dubbed Ashe Vision, the project has hosted its first community meetings, including three public forums and a fourth designed to gain feedback from local industry leaders.
The project’s leadership say they’re encouraged with the way Ashe Vision has played out to date, and are already busy planning the group’s next steps.
“The first meetings were especially well attended,” Josh Roten, president of Ashe Vision said. “Everybody seemed to be engaged and that’s exactly what we were looking for. We wanted input from everybody, and each of the groups had a little something extra to contribute that we didn’t hear at the other locations. You heard a lot of the same comments, too – especially when we were talking about barriers – and we needed to hear that, too.”
At least one attendee, however, has called into question the focus of the Ashe Vision project.
“I attended two of the three recent Ashe Vision meetings and came away disappointed in the narrow focus and lack of open discussion on important topics pertaining to the future of Ashe County,” Jefferson resident Christopher Born wrote in an open letter last week to Ashe Vision’s leadership.
Born’s main criticism? That none of the community meetings to date have truly examined the full range of issues Ashe County will have to face over the next decade.
How’d we get here?
Ashe Vision officially got off the ground little more than a year ago, according to Roten, but the group 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 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 new Superintendent of Ashe County Schools Phyllis Yates replaced outgoing Superintendent Todd Holden when he departed for his new posting with Madison County Schools at the end of June.
‘Your voice is important’
The group also hired Chris Aycock, the president of Raleigh-based consulting firm The Aycock Group, to help develop the overall plan for Ashe Vision and to help lead the group through its community meeting sessions which kicked off in early June.
Meeting attendees at the group’s first session at Blue Ridge Elementary on June 2, for instance, focused on Ashe County’s geography, strong school system and relative proximity to major metro areas like Charlotte and Raleigh among its greatest strengths. Access to capital, a shortage of skilled workers and problems with accessibility were among the concerns attendees said are holding Ashe County back.
To Born’s mind, however, the meetings sidestepped some of the major issues facing the county in coming decades.
“Is economic development the only thing we want from a strategic plan or should the vision include quality of life issues for the 92 percent of citizens who already have jobs or don’t need one,” Born wrote. “How can we protect the best characteristics of living here from being negatively impacted by a growing economy?”
Born also believes the group should also focus on quality of life issues.
“What can we do in our community about poor health, poor diets, high suicide rates and a trend toward unhealthy lifestyles,” Born said. “How about noisy truck traffic, lack of parking and lack of walking/biking paths?”
He also pleaded with leaders not to forget the county’s strongest economic engine: agriculture.
“(Agriculture) generates more jobs and brings in more income than any other economic sector,” Born said. “Why wouldn’t we put our money and effort into expanding and supporting farming throughout the county? It would maintain our rural heritage and character while not being subject to any of the dozens of business development barriers suggested in the Ashe Vision meeting.”
He also said be believes the project should be spearheaded by county government and local municipalities to ensure transparency and accountability throughout the Ashe Vision process. The entirety of Born’s open letter can be viewed at www.jeffersonpost.com.
It’s still early
Born’s criticism of the Ashe Vision process aside, Roten said the project remains in its early stages and said the group encourages the community to offer additional feedback. He also told High Country media outlets Ashe Vision would answer Born’s concerns following its upcoming July meeting.
“Look, we had great energy and good early feedback from our meetings,” Roten said. “Right now (Aycock) is compiling all that information together with data from High Country Council of Governments.”
That information will then be presented to the public at an additional “summit” meeting this fall, where the group will take additional public input and focus on defining actionable project goals.
“We don’t have a definite date for that yet,” Roten said. “But we’re probably looking at early fall. We feel like there was some excitement and energy at the initial meetings and we want to take advantage of that momentum to get started on this.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.