Chancellor talks with tri-county leaders about “hole in economic doughnut”

SPRUCE PINE – To about 150 business and government leaders from Mitchell, Yancey and Avery counties, at first it may have seemed a rather unusual dessert item for a luncheon address, but the several dozen doughnuts distributed Friday, Jan. 31, by Western Carolina University Chancellor John W. Bardo were more than just a tasty treat.

They also served as a visual aid to the theme of his talk – that Western North Carolina is like the hole in a doughnut when it comes to economic development. His remarks came at the Mitchell County Economic Development Summit: 2003 and Beyond.

“This represents a map of us and surrounding states. Where you see the doughnut, those are the areas around us that are developing economically,” Bardo said. “That hole in the center is Western North Carolina. We are the hole in the economic development doughnut.”

The key to plugging that hole is an updated economic development strategy for the state of North Carolina, said Bardo, who then pointed to a second visual aid – himself. “The economic development policy we follow in North Carolina is out-of-date,” said the 54-year-old chancellor. “Possibly, it’s time for a change. Perhaps it’s time to develop an economic development policy that fits your children and grandchildren, and not this old man.”

Bardo urged the business leaders to contact their legislators and make the case for state policies that clearly tie higher education to business development. Modern economic policy must recognize universities as resources for potential new business and industry, he said, citing recent reports by the National Governors’ Association and the Appalachian Regional Commission showing that clusters of high-tech business frequently emerge around universities. “The local universities, not just big universities in the center of the state, must engage in a broad range of research and activities appropriate to the region they serve.”

An important step in the development of Western North Carolina would be the establishment of an undergraduate program in engineering housed at WCU, he said. Many WNC business leaders have called location of an engineering program and other specific high-tech disciplines that support job development a critical state policy decision, Bardo said.

David Kolzow, chair of the department of economic development and planning at the University of Southern Mississippi, also said that education and “the right mix of academic programs” are musts.

“The goal is to create a globally competitive workforce,” Kolzow said. “Your young people may go away to get their educations, but they want to come back to where they grew up. Ultimately, it’s their presence that will make the difference. The most important investment you can make in this information age is in the human brain.”

Such gatherings as Friday’s summit will play a valuable role in successful economic development efforts, said Gordon Myers, chairman of the AdvantageWest regional economic development organization.

“It’s an excellent start that we have three counties represented here today. We must put aside our partisan politics and overlook our turf concerns, because things are much too tough to go it alone,” said Myers, vice president of Ingles Markets. “If we can’t get along with the person who’s in the next county, then we’ve got some problems here at home.”