Over 10 mayors and community leaders from Western North Carolina met this week to discuss how to expand the outdoor industry in their towns.
The outdoor industry accounts for $14 billion dollars in spending in Western North Carolina. Mountain BizWorks wants to make that number even larger. It just received an almost $2 million dollar grant , the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership that operates in 13 states. That money includes $940,000 from the fund and $787,000 in matching from local governments which totals $1.73 million. WNC Farmers Market also received funding.
Matt Raker of Mountain BizWorks spoke to the mayors at the meeting:
“What does the outdoor industry mean for your towns and the areas that you work in?”
During the discussion, the mayors from Murphy, Robbinsville and Highlands spoke up about how they see room for growth in the outdoor industry in their regions.
Hayesville mayor Harry Baughn explained that most of the region has the same desirable outdoor geography for fishing, hiking and biking - but not all of the towns in the region are benefiting. Baughn says Hayesville doesn’t have a single outdoor retailer.
Clay County economic development director Valerie Flanagan broke it down:
“We have all the things you all have but you can go hiking for free, biking for free, fishing for free - minus having a fishing license. So the outdoors are a lost opportunity for us because we aren’t making any money out of it,” says Flanagan.
This story represents a larger problem in the region, explains Sarah Thompson director of Southwestern commission.
“We already know that tourism is strong in the region and we’ve backed that up through analysis and data,” says Thompson. “We need to leverage why tourists are already coming here into a more sustainable economy.”
The grant that Mountain Bizworks received could help with this kind of economic diversification and funding. The grant also created a new loan fund of $800,000 that small businesses can apply for through Mountain Bizworks or their partner Natural Capital Investment Fund. Any rural based outdoor company can qualify.