Hundreds of “thought leaders” gather to envision region’s future

CULLOWHEE – “I need you to help me, ya’ll,” the soloist for the Western Carolina University Inspirational Choir sang. “I’ll take you there,” the remainder of the ensemble sang in answer.

The choir’s performance at the opening of the i7 Futures Forum on Wednesday, April 13, in Western’s Ramsey Regional Activity Center set the stage for a day of dialogue about what steps can be done to help take the Western North Carolina region there – into a future of economic and social prosperity.

“We want people to close their eyes, relax and imagine that they are waking up 20 years into the future,” said Paul Evans, director of Western’s Center for Regional Development, which hosted the forum. “We asked them to look around and tell us what they see, and then we want them to tell us their vision for how we get there. Like the choir sang, we need the help of many people to get there. The first step in the process is today’s conversation.”

Nearly 1,000 “thought leaders” – including business owners, young entrepreneurs, government officials, university professors and administrators, artists, writers, poets, philosophers, technologists and students – came together to brainstorm around the seven guiding themes of the i7 Futures Forum – imagination, ideas, insight, ingenuity, innovation, invention and inspiration.

Conference topics literally ranged from A to Z, with one session focusing on architecture and design, another examining Zen Buddhism and the search for meaning, while others tackled everything in between – such subjects as biotechnology, communications and broadband, health care, native botanicals and tourism.

i7 attendees listen intently during a conference session.

i7 attendees listen intently during a conference session.

The i7 Futures Forum is the first part of an on-going effort to help shape the direction of Western’s recently announced Millennial Initiative, a comprehensive regional economic development strategy that includes the addition of 344 acres of property adjacent to the main campus.

Characterized by Chancellor John W. Bardo as “a defining moment in the university’s 115-year history,” the Millennial Initiative is designed to enable Western to engage in public-private partnerships that enhance educational opportunities for students in high-tech programs and increase the ability of faculty to conduct cutting-edge research, while simultaneously promoting economic development.

“The people of North Carolina have had some really difficult times. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have gone off shore,” Bardo said at the forum’s opening session. “People have lost their life savings, lost their homes. They are struggling to keep their families together, but not just together. They are struggling to keep their families together in a particular place in a particular part of North Carolina.”

University officials say the Millennial Initiative and the i7 Futures Forum are part of an effort to help keep the best and brightest of the region’s young people from leaving home to find the type of high-paying jobs available elsewhere.

Findings from the i7 Futures Forum will be compiled in a report to be published later by the Center for Regional Development on its Web site, (link no longer active).