WCU conference examines ways to grow economy, preserve environment

More than 100 leaders from across Western North Carolina came together Friday, Oct. 7, at Western Carolina University to discuss ways to foster regional economic development without having a negative impact on the mountain environment.

Representatives from the private and public sectors tackled a range of issues related to preserving the natural environment while enabling the growth of businesses and industries, including those that specialize in outdoor and adventure tourism.

leadwnclogoThe daylong conference, “Advancing our Economy, Preserving our Environment,” was the latest in a series of LEAD:WNC conferences sponsored by WCU.

In introductory remarks welcoming attendees, WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher characterized the conference as “a day of conversation dedicated to the sustainable growth and development of our wonderful part of the state of North Carolina.”

During the morning session, speakers addressed the topics of transportation, manufacturing, health, creative arts and education.

Stan Cross, CEO of Brightfield Transportation Solutions in Asheville, shared data about the growth of electric vehicle sales, predicting that, by the year 2022, the cost of an electrical vehicle will be the same as the cost of a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.

Alec Burkle, engineering manager for Eaton Corp. in Arden, described his company’s efforts to reduce its footprint – the negative impacts of the manufacturing process – while increasing its handprint – the positive impacts caused by business activities. “The goal is to make the handprint larger than the footprint,” Burkle said.

Heather Gates, director of the Western North Carolina Health Network, discussed “the intersection and interconnectivity of the economy, the environment and the health of the region,” while Timm Muth, director of the Jackson County Green Energy Park, talked about the park’s use of landfill gases as fuel for glass, blacksmithing, metalsmithing and ceramics studios, simultaneously encouraging economic development while providing environmental protection.

Lauren Bishop, WCU’s chief sustainability officer, and Lane Perry, WCU director of service learning, tag-teamed on a presentation about the role of the university in providing graduates who are not just thinkers but also doers, and the use of the university campus as a living/learning laboratory to address critical issues facing the community and region.

During an afternoon session titled “Issues Impacting the Outdoor Tourism Economy and the Environment,” experts from both the public and private sectors discussed a variety of issues centered on the growing use of WNC’s natural resources as a tool for economic development.

David Brown, executive director of American Outdoors Association in Knoxville, Tennessee, called for the elimination of bureaucratic barriers to outdoor outfitters seeking permits to operate on public lands.

Mark Singleton, executive director of the Cullowhee-based American Whitewater, reminded conference attendees that rivers, forests and trails cross county lines. “A regional approach is really key,” Singleton said. “It answers the question of ‘what’s in it for me?’”

Nantahala Outdoor Center CEO Sutton Bacon emphasized the changing demographic of first-time users of public lands and the importance of getting youth involved in outdoor activities early, especially as today’s young people are “tied to technology and to their phones.”

Echoing Bacon’s comments, Andrew Bobilya, director of WCU’s Parks and Recreation Management Program, described the increasing diversity of the region’s population and rising reliance on technology as both challenges and opportunities. “When given the opportunity to put the phone or tablet or laptop down and engage with their peers in a natural space, they actually are surprised how much they enjoyed it,” Bobilya said.

Wrapping up the session, Mike Wilkins, head ranger in the Nantahala District of the U.S. Forest Service, pointed out that two of the top five most-visited national forests in the U.S. are in Western North Carolina – Pisgah and Nantahala. “If you were to take away the ski areas in Colorado, we’d be talking about No. 1 and No. 2,” Wilkins said.

The event also included facilitated breakout sessions on social entrepreneurship, creative place-making and regional transportation issues.

The conference is part of a series of spin-off events from the inaugural LEAD:WNC, a one-day summit convened in 2014 by WCU to discuss solutions leading to sustainable economic and community development. Launching an annual conference of regional leaders and thinkers to work collaboratively on solving regional issues was among the pledges made by Belcher in his March 2012 installation address.