CULLOWHEE – Nearly 500 people from all walks of life gathered Wednesday, Nov. 19, at Western Carolina University to exchange ideas on how individual entrepreneurial spirit and the development of small businesses may offer the best hope for a North Carolina economy battered by the loss of thousands of industrial jobs.
“In North Carolina, 60 percent of all new jobs are created by small business, and in some states that percentage is as high as 75 percent,” Clifton Metcalf, Western’s vice chancellor for advancement and external affairs, said in remarks opening a daylong conference titled “Catching the American Dream: A Summit on Entrepreneurship.” “Partners from government, business, education and all sectors must create a better environment for entrepreneurship, for the creation of news businesses and new jobs.”
Much of the event, sponsored by WCU’s Public Policy Institute and held in the Ramsey Regional Activity Center, centered on examples of entrepreneurial success stories. The founders of three flourishing Western North Carolina businesses – Roger Bartlett of Western Builders, Leanne Campbell of Blue Ridge Motion Pictures and Payson Kennedy of Nantahala Outdoor Center – provided a first-hand look at the trials and tribulations of growing a new business.
Jim and Jo Ann Carland, co-directors of Western’s academic programs in entrepreneurship, discussed how many small business ventures fail because the entrepreneur has the dream and the desire, but not the skills. “Just because you like to cook doesn’t mean you can run a restaurant,” Jim Carland said.
Asheville Mayor Charles Worley and Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines discussed strategies adopted by their cities to boost entrepreneurship.
“Political leadership matters in entrepreneurship because it matters in economic development in general,” Worley said. “The recruitment of new industry is traditionally what has been called economic development in the past. But we also need industrial retention and expansion, and we need tourism, sports, the arts, retirees, and small business and entrepreneurial development. Political leadership is absolutely critical if there is going to be sustained growth in all these forms of economic development.”
Joines described steps being taken in the Winston-Salem area to recover from the loss of thousands of jobs in the tobacco, textile and furniture industries. Those include creation of the Triad Entrepreneurial Initiative, a $2 million, five-year program involving business and government leaders across 12 counties that provides grants, incubator space, training, mentoring and other assistance to developers of new small businesses. “The media has described it as the first meaningful collaborative effort among the private sector, perhaps ever,” he said.
In the summit’s keynote address, former N.C. Gov. James Martin commended the efforts of entrepreneurs, but also reminded the crowd that small business is one part of what should be a broad-based economic development strategy.
“Some people are saying, ‘don’t worry about industry or big business because that buffalo hunt is over.’ I disagree,” Martin said. “You have to stand up for jobs in Western North Carolina, for big business, small business, any size business in between. We need high-tech, low-tech, medium-tech, or there won’t be any new jobs in the region.”
Martin called for a more “business friendly climate” in North Carolina, criticized the state’s tax structure and regulatory agencies as harmful to business and industry, and reminded the crowd of a slogan adopted during his tenure as governor: “North Carolina means business.”
“Does North Carolina still mean business, or is North Carolina just mean to business? Or, is the truth somewhere in between, and we treat business with benign neglect?” he said, urging a change in the business climate. “If all we have is service jobs, if we’re doing each others’ laundry, cutting each others’ hair, and burying one another, all we are doing is recycling the wealth. We’re not creating new wealth. If you want to create wealth, you’ve got to make it, grow it, mine it, film it, whatever. You’ve got to create something to create wealth.”
The day concluded with a panel discussion involving leaders from the public and private sectors examining possible new entrepreneurial strategies for the mountain region. A policy report will be issued at a later date.