Western’s Center for Regional Development issues report from WNC survey

CULLOWHEE – The results are in from a comprehensive scientific sampling of residents of the 23 westernmost counties of North Carolina, and researchers at Western Carolina University’s Center for Regional Development say they found some surprises in their examination of the region’s economic, social and political trends.

The findings, published in a new Regional Outlook Report issued by Western’s CRD, dispel several myths about Western North Carolina that researchers say are damaging to the region’s economic development efforts.

The report is based on data collected during a telephone survey late last fall, with respondents selected through random digit dialing, followed by an analysis of economic and demographic data from 23 WNC counties. It is the work of a multidisciplinary team of researchers – a sociologist, a political scientist and an economist.

“For sure, the image of our region has been based more on myth than reality. To attract business and growth, we need to present a clearer picture of who we are and the role we want to play in the new economy,” said Kathleen M. Brennan, assistant professor of sociology at Western and a sociologist with the CRD.

“We started with the assumption that the facts would support the conventional thinking about the economy in our region,” said Inhyuck “Steve” Ha, assistant professor of economics and CRD economist. “That turned out not to be the case at all.”

Among the popular myths is that service sector jobs will replace jobs lost through the decline in traditional manufacturing such as furniture and textiles. Not true, the researchers say. While laid-off plant workers might be lucky enough to find work in the service sector, the overall impact of those jobs on the local economy will be far less than the overall impact of manufacturing jobs, said Ha, who conducted an economic multiplier analysis on the overall impact of various types of jobs.

Another myth holds that WNC residents are opposed to development, including the construction of new roads. In reality, more than 75 percent of poll respondents said they support building new roads and widening existing ones.

According to “conventional thinking,” WNC does not have the educated workforce needed to attract high-tech industries of the new economy. The reality, the researchers say, is that the number of earned high school diplomas is up more than 25 percent since 1990, and more residents are taking advantage of education and training programs offered by community colleges and universities.

A popularly held myth is that WNC residents believe the only hope for the region’s economic future is to attract new manufacturing plants that will bring in thousands of jobs. According to poll respondents, the majority of the region’s residents say investment in small business and emerging “information age” industry is the key.

Finally, the myth is that most Western North Carolinians don’t see any value in the Internet. Actually, 88 percent of those surveyed indicated it is important for residents of WNC to be connected to the Internet, and that increased access to affordable high-speed broadband fiber is critical.

Authors of the report say they hope the information collected and analyzed will be useful for local and state policy-makers, including state legislators as they fashion new economic development strategies.

“Sound economic policy for our region requires that decision-makers understand the reality behind these myths. We still have the opportunity to build on these realities and push regional action,” said Chris Cooper, assistant professor of political science at Western and social science analyst for the CRD.

“Our desire is to tease out each of these areas and drill down deep on what they might mean for our state legislators as they return to Raleigh,” said Paul Evans, CRD director. “We know we will be facing critical choices for Western North Carolina and the entire state as we embrace the new economy and put our people back to work.”

Counties included in the survey are Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey.

The report is available by calling (828) 227-7492.