The local economy
Arden resident James F. Smith sees a mostly sunny forecast for 2010. That's because Western North Carolina didn't go overboard in terms of the real-estate boom that led to so many devastating problems nationally, he says, and because the region's core economic drivers are less cyclical in nature. Smith is chief economist for Parsec Financial, and both are nationally known for their forecasts.
"It's going to be a much better year" than 2009, Smith predicts. Why? "Because despite all the traumas and turmoils, disposable income has been growing most of the year and, since people spend most of their income, that's what makes the world go round." In the U.S., he notes, consumer spending accounts for about $7 of every $10 spent in the U.S.
That's not to say that 2010 will be gangbusters. Smith predicts the national economy will grow by 3.4 percent, and Western North Carolina will see growth slightly higher than that, though still below 4 percent. But that's not a problem, says Smith, because "Steady growth is the way to go." Big booms, he maintains, always lead to big busts.
Meanwhile, the other key legs of the mountain region's economy — health care, education, hospitality and business services — all appear to be fairly solid, Smith reports. In terms of the local tourism trade, for example, he points to the opening of five new hotels in Asheville over the past year, "which is a big number for a relatively small place, and everybody seems to be doing fairly well."
The other local bright spot is the region's small but growing technology sector. "That should keep growing as well," Smith believes. "That attracts a lot of distance workers, and we're fortunate to live in a place that's popular with people who have a choice about where they work."
2010 will be a big year for elections at both the national and state level, with plenty of local action as well. In North Carolina, Republican Sen. Richard Burr will be up for re-election; at this writing, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall is the best-known figure to have announced a challenge. In the mountains, two-term Rep. Heath Shuler, aDemocrat, plans to seek another term. At least a half-dozen mountain Republicans have already lined up to try to unseat Shuler, including Hendersonville Mayor Greg Newman and Asheville attorney Ed Krause.
Buncombe County's three state House members and one N.C. Senate member will also stand for re-election. So far, the most notable race is the Democratic primary, with Patsy Keever, a former Buncombe County commissioner, making a bid against incumbent Rep. Bruce Goforth. State Sen. Martin Nesbitt, chosen recently to serve as majority leader, will put his key leadership position on the line as he seeks another term.
The other countywide race that may attract attention is Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan's re-election campaign. To date, no challengers have publicly announced.
In the U.S. Senate race, political science professor Bill Sabo of UNCA sees North Carolina "leaning Republican." Sabo says Shuler has done a good job of underscoring his "moderate, centrist qualities, so I don't think he's in trouble." But at the state level, incumbent Democrats may have a difficult time. "They're going to have to be very careful about how they frame the discussion of the decisions they made in dealing with the state's budget crises."
A-B Tech's board of trustees has narrowed its list of finalists for the job of college president. Betty Young, who became the school's fourth president in May 2008, resigned last March to take a position as president of Coleman College for Health Sciences in Houston. In announcing her plans to move on, Young cited "division" and "discontent" on campus but didn't elaborate.
After interviewing five candidates, the trustees will further narrow the field to three finalists, who will be reviewed by the State Board of Community Colleges. A-B Tech's board plans to announce a final decision at its Feb. 1 meeting. With a $54 million budget, the school serves a mostly part-time student body — nearly 18,000 continuing-education students and about 9,400 curriculum students.
Meanwhile, over at Mission Health System, President/Chief Executive Joe Damore announced his resignation last fall amid ongoing tension between hospital administrators and some local doctors. In a letter to administrators, doctors from a number of Asheville-based practices expressed concern about Mission's direction and leadership. The hospital's board appointed a special committee to investigate but has yet to make all of its findings public.
With more than 6,000 employees and $1 billion in annual revenues, the hospital is one of Western North Carolina's primary economic engines. In December, Mission's board announced the appointment of Carleton T. Rider as interim president and CEO, beginning Jan. 1. Rider will serve until the board completes its national search for a new chief executive.
Asheville's vibrant downtown promises to continue buzzing. There are always a certain number of openings and closings among downtown restaurants and retailers, but 2010 will see a couple of significant additions.
Urban Outfitters plans to open a store at the corner of Haywood and College streets sometime in the coming months. The new arrival is highly anticipated by those who love the national retail chain's funky offerings — and dreaded by others who fear it will erode downtown's quirky character. Building renovations are under way, but store officials have not announced an opening date.
Work on the new Pack Square Park will also continue into 2010. The Pack Square Conservancy is busy raising money to pay for a planned $2.4 million pavilion in the park's midsection, the last part to be completed, and construction won't begin until the funds are in hand. But Pack's Tavern, a new bar and restaurant facing the south side of Roger McGuire Green, is slated to be finished this spring. Developer Stewart Coleman dropped his controversial plan to build condos on the site, instead opting to renovate the existing Hayes & Hopson Building to accommodate the tavern.
Other planned openings: There's a new wine bar going in at 5 Walnut St., and a new café is planned for Broadway. Several large hotel and condominium projects remain on hold, including The Ellington, planned for Biltmore Avenue.
Glen Rock rises
The biggest change in the River Arts District this year looks to be the completion of the Glen Rock Depot project, which is now going full steam ahead after years of planning. Mountain Housing Opportunities is renovating the Glen Rock Hotel building, built in 1930, and erecting a new structure that will house 60 apartments and 9,000 square feet of commercial and retail space as well as 3,000 square feet of community space. The ambitious project promises to transform the sleepy Depot Street neighborhood.
MHO says the new construction will be one of the first LEED-certified, multifamily, affordable-housing developments in North Carolina. Green features include solar hot water and water catchment systems. There are also plans for a rooftop deck and indoor atrium. The Asheville nonprofit plans to issue a call to local artists to design some of the new building's architectural elements.
Beer in the new year
2010 will see ever more action on the craft-beer scene in Asheville and Western North Carolina. After two years of construction, the Lexington Avenue Brewery is set to open this month. Occupying the former site of the T.S. Morrison store on Lexington, the brewery is the latest addition to a vibrant microbrewing community that gained national recognition last year when Asheville tied with Portland, Ore., for the title of Beer City USA in an online poll. Farther west, Nantahala Brewing hopes to open its Bryson City brewery this spring.
A new North Carolina law enacted in October is also expected to give the state's craft-brewing industry a boost this year. The law allows retailers, beer representatives and craft brewers to apply for a permit enabling them to set up tastings at events big and small. The special-event permit costs $200; a separate beer-tasting permit costs $100. The state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission expects the permits to generate at least $100,000 in the first year, and the craft-beer industry hopes the tastings will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales.
One last note on the beer scene: The Asheville Brewers Alliance plans to launch an inaugural spring beer festival this year. Modeled on the wildly popular Brewgrass Festival in September, the new event will feature local bands and comedy acts plus beer-education booths, while highlighting dozens of craft brewers. The target date for the festival is Saturday, May 29; the location hasn't yet been announced.
In the works...
Momentum, The Health Adventure's $25 million facility on Broadway, was scheduled to open in 2010, but this year's rainy weather has pushed back the opening date, according to Tracie Perkins, vice president of capital campaign and marketing.
"We're looking forward to a great year at The Health Adventure ... and look forward to opening Momentum in early 2011. We're really excited about this project," she reports.
It's a big move for the museum, which will vacate its space at Pack Place in downtown Asheville in favor of the new 39,000-square-foot building. In addition to interactive science and health exhibits, plans call for a tree house classroom, a pedal-powered monorail and green features including a storm-water filtration system.
Several other large projects unlikely to be completed in 2010 are also worth watching: the Asheville Art Museum's renovation of the former Health Adventure space, which will double the museum's size (work is not expected to start until 2011); and fundraising for a planned multimillion-dollar performing-arts center just south of Asheville's City Hall.
Work is also continuing on three new buildings that are part of a collaboration between Western Carolina University and UNCA. The new 122,000-square-foot N.C. Center for Health and Wellness on the UNCA campus, with an estimated cost of $40 million, is scheduled to open in 2011. The $46 million WCU College of Health and Human Services, a 160,000-square-foot facility, will include classrooms, laboratory space and a clinic. Finally, Matthews Construction Co. of Charlotte was recently awarded a $6.1 million contract to build a new campus for the Mountain Area Health Education Center. The 50,000-square-foot building at the corner of Vanderbilt and Hendersonville roads in Asheville is the first of two structures planned for the 13-acre site. The buildings will also house classrooms, conference rooms and a medical library.