JEFFERSON-Has the same rust belt that corroded employment prospects in towns off the mountain extended its reach to the High Country?
The slow exodus of many long-time employers, such as Hanes/Sara Lee and Gates Rubber Company, created a void of consistent income for a workforce that for decades has relied on manufacturing jobs to make ends meet.
More recently, you can trace that grueling departure of factory jobs to the mid ’90s closing of key industries including Hanes/Sara Lee. Since then, other companies have made sizable reductions or outright closures.
The question that now remains for the workers who were not able to transfer into skilled labor is will these 200-job factories ever return?
According to county economic development officials, the forecast is bleak.
Intrinsically speaking, Ashe County has several natural and institutional disadvantages when stacked up against larger metros off the mountain that rely on greater infrastructure when luring large companies into town.
While the county’s natural beauty and topography are top selling points for attracting tourists, it is considered a detriment to the filling the demand of employers looking to relocate.
Steep hillsides and the lack of shovel ready flat land necessitates higher excavation costs. Why would another conglomerate decide to come to the county if acres upon acres of more manageable land is located five minutes from I-85 or I-40?
There is also the lack of readily available facilities.
“When companies are looking for a location, 87 percent of the time they choose a location that has an existing building,” said Cathy Barr, Ashe County’s director of economic development. “In reality, they chose an existing building because it is a whole lot cheaper to get cents on the dollar per foot than building from scratch. They are looking for buildings with 18-foot ceilings and access is very important, too.”
Currently, Ashe County doesn’t have any existing buildings that fit that demand. The closest alternative is the old Tigra building in West Jefferson, but it only boasts around 18,000 square feet.
In the future, Barr said she’s hopeful the county can go through the process of having acquiring a piece of land with the intent of transforming it into a shovel ready site. Ideally, such a site would entice companies to locate an office or branch to the county.
“Even if we just had the site available, we would at least have the product,” said Barr. “Right now, we don’t have any product. If you are going to to buy a car and you go to the dealership and there’s nothing on the sales floor, obviously you aren’t going to do business with that car lot. It’s the same issue with Ashe County.”
But just because the product is not quite available does it mean the county can follow the mentality of a defeatist attitude.
“Businesses are still out there looking,” said Ashe County Commissioner Larry Rhodes, who once headed the old Sara Lee facility. “We’ve got to keep searching. A lot of those states are competitive just like we are. We have great folks who want to work.”
Although he’s not a fan of incentives, Rhodes said the county must be willing to explore all options, so towns in neighboring states don’t rob locals of good paying jobs and chances at new opportunities.
Rhodes also believes the slow trickle of jobs leaving the county is also a sign of the times.
“The whole economy has been held back on that,”said Rhodes. “Last week, AEV (in Jefferson) announced the purchase of the old Hanes Building, which will add even more jobs. We have the potential. It’s just a matter of keep selling it. We haven’t fallen real short on not doing that. I think the economy has so much to bear because of the bottom line (in what companies are looking for).”
Rhodes also pointed to the productive relationship shared between G.E. Aviation in West Jefferson and Wilkes Community College in procuring new jobs in the county. The Ashe Campus of WCC was instrumental in bringing an eager workforce up to speed in training and industry standards. G.E. is one of the nation’s leaders and has a lion share hold on the turbine engine sector of the aviation market.
Protecting current assets
Bolstering the capabilities of current employers is also a top priority for Barr’s office in strengthening the county’s workforce.
“As an economic developer, one of the things I can do is support existing businesses,” said Barr. “When AEV started the renovation of the former Gates plant, I worked with them and the High Country Council of Government to get a $500,000 building reuse grant.”
In turn, these companies can expand their workforce when they receive just the right amount of assistance.
“One of those good things is that AEV has already added 87 last jobs in the last year,” said Barr “Eighty-five percent of the time jobs are created it is predated by existing businesses. The other thing is people starting business. Small businesses make up the lion share of all businesses in the nation.”
You can take a look at the revitalization of Jefferson Avenue and the success story of Boondocks Brewery as a prime example of what a small business can accomplish, she said.
Officials said they must also remain open minded to the possibility of new industries coming to the county, too. Call centers and the tech sector has caught Barr’s attention as well.
At one point, the county was trying to shop the now empty Lowe’s Food building to a prospective company needing a place to handle its growing call volume. Ultimately, however, that company picked another location.
Assisting with Ashe County’s search for new employers is the ongoing widening of U.S. 221 that will cut down on travel time for companies looking to bring in raw goods and transforming them into a finished product before moving them out of the county for sale.
An accomplished school system and hospital are also top selling points when courting businesses interests to the county.
“Ashe County has a whole lot to offer,” said Barr. “I think anyone anywhere would die to have we have in scenic beauty and water. This is something that is absolutely outstanding. With companies like AEV and GE aviation, usually the divisions of different companies in Ashe County are usually outperforming other divisions (across the country). We have a very high quality work force.”
Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.