WCU’s regional think tank launches WNC Pulse initiative

In response to the ongoing national economic crisis, Western Carolina University’s Institute for the Economy and the Future is launching WNC Pulse, a new Web-based initiative, to help solve regional problems by identifying Western North Carolina’s major economic, social and political issues and trends.

An effort to provide regionally focused key economic data and best practices in an easy-to-understand format, WNC Pulse is a Web site designed to allow mountain area policy-makers and economic developers to track data and stay abreast of local economic issues.

Staff members with the IEF began working on the WNC Pulse project in late April after consulting with the N.C. Department of Commerce, county economic development commissioners, elected government officials and small business owners from Jackson, Swain and Macon counties.

During the conversations, county representatives requested creation of an “economic key indicator dashboard” capable of tracking economic changes in the region, county-specific global information system information, and valuable best practices showcasing critical policies and initiatives from around the region, said Daniel J. Ostergaard, IEF executive director.

“This Web site is designed to serve the people of Western North Carolina. We wanted to create a tool that would provide public and private leadership with insight into ongoing economic issues in our region,” Ostergaard said. “With our grassroots approach to developing this regional tool, we believe we can harness technology to create a useful and dynamic communications instrument that will allow an exchange of ideas, lessons learned and best practices throughout the region to ultimately promote sustainable economic development.”

The WNC Pulse Web site (www.wncpulse.org is no longer active) features a regional homepage that allows users to access individual county sites highlighting county-specific data and information. The Jackson, Swain and Macon county sites are currently operational, and new content is uploaded on a daily basis.

The IEF is working to expand the pilot project to cover the remaining 20 counties in the AdvantageWest region, as well as the Qualla Boundary, home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. Staff members expect to have six county Web sites completed by the end of the year, and consultations are under way with Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties.

“We are taking a regional approach,” Ostergaard said. “Each of our counties is unique and presents a host of economic opportunities for the future.”

In past years, the IEF produced popular “County Profiles,” which featured key economic data for the 23 AdvantageWest counties. Those historical files are available on the WNC Pulse site, along with recently updated reports for each of the counties. Past “County Profile” users are encouraged to regard the WNC Pulse Web site as their main resource to obtain current and pertinent regional and county-specific data, Ostergaard said.

“Because the Web sites are created using an open-source content management system, county officials can easily add user-generated content through forums, blogs and podcasts,” he said. “We also are developing multimedia content to complement the county economic information.”

WNC Pulse is an outcome of the IEF’s 2008 Western North Carolina Regional Outlook Report, which identified gaps in regional information, interaction and initiative as among the factors leading to slower economic growth in WNC than in the rest of the state.

The report, authored by Kathleen Brennan, assistant professor of sociology; Christopher Cooper, associate professor of political science and public affairs; and Inhyuck “Steve” Ha, assistant professor of economics, is available online under the “initiatives and projects” link on the IEF Web site, http://ief.wcu.edu/.

Western Carolina’s Institute for the Economy and the Future is a regional economic policy think tank with capacities for research, policy analysis and audio-visual production. For more information about WNC Pulse, or to schedule an interview with IEF staff, contact Andy Ireland at (828) 227-2642 or via e-mail at avireland@email.wcu.edu.