Social, cultural and economic factors in Western North Carolina changed dramatically in the years since 1960. The large metropolitan areas have grown faster than the rural counties and have been better able to withstand economic downturns as their economies became more diversified. Arts, entertainment and recreation represent a significant growth sector in the region, with Buncombe, Watauga, Henderson, and Jackson Counties being the major centers for these endeavors. Western North Carolina is also recognized for its wilderness and roadless areas, resources limited in both the Southern Appalachians and the eastern United States.
Forest products are an important contributor to the regional economy. The value of wood and wood products closely reflects variability in national economic conditions and, as expected, the demand for forest products has decreased during two recessions in the past decade. The forests of Western North Carolina are now maturing, leading to an increase in the available volume of high value sawtimber and veneer logs in the future.
Finally, population has increased steadily since 1960, with the highest populations residing in Buncombe, Henderson, Wilkes, and Haywood Counties. Newcomers appear to have different values and lifestyles than their predecessors, especially regarding the use and preservation of natural resources. Long-time residents depended on natural resources to make a living and to provide a setting for traditional events and activities, and hence generally favor use and conservation of natural resources. New residents, often relocating from large cities outside the region, are more inclined to see natural resources set aside and preserved for the ecological and aesthetic services they provide. This dichotomy of views continues to challenge the region to plan for and achieve sustainable outcomes.
Economic Trends in Western North Carolina
Although experiencing the effects of a contracting national economy from 2008 to 2010, regional economic activity in Western North Carolina has been steadily growing since 1970. Economic conditions vary considerably between the region and the state, but also within the region. The 2001 recession was especially difficult for Western North Carolina, but the subsequent recovery has been even more challenging. The regional economy continues to lag behind the rest of the state, and trends suggest the divide between the region and the state will continue to grow.
There was a general increase in the number of jobs in all counties until the start of the 2000s. A slow-down occurred in the majority of counties with some, like Buncombe, experiencing negative growth for two years (2001-2002) but recovering thereafter. In terms of distribution, the majority of jobs were located in Buncombe County with Henderson and Wilkes a distant second and third. More jobs are now related to recreation and tourism than in previous decades. In the Advantage West region, which encompasses all eighteen counties plus Burke, Caldwell, and McDowell, the industries that have a demonstrated competitive advantage relative to North Carolina and the nation are recreation and tourism, retirement and second homes, arts and crafts, vehicle parts assembly, metalworking, and chemicals and plastics.
There was also a general increase in wages for nearly all counties until the start of the current decade. A slow-down occurred in some of the more affluent counties (Wilkes, Transylvania) at the start of the 2000s but reversed itself thereafter. In terms of distribution, Buncombe County currently has the highest average wage, but Transylvania County had the highest wages for most for the period. It is also interesting to note that Haywood County had equal or higher wages than Buncombe during the 1970s and 1980s.
Wage rates quadrupled from 1975 to 2005 but when inflation is factored in, the real wage rate increased only by 9.1 percent. Real wages expressed in 1975 dollars actually declined slightly from the 1970s to 1980s, then increased
6.2 percent from the 1980s to the 1990s, and increased again 2.8 percent from 2000 to 2005. In the 1970s, the counties with the highest wages were Transylvania, Haywood and Buncombe Counties. Most recently Buncombe, Wilkes, and Henderson Counties have the highest wages.
In spite of this, in 2007, the region’s average income ($31,556) still lags behind national ($44,470) and state ($39,184) average income. All counties fell behind North Carolina’s $39,184 median household income level. Transylvania, Henderson, and Buncombe are closest to the state average, ranging from $36,000 to $38,000. Ashe, Swain, Cherokee, and Graham Counties have the lowest median household income ranging from $26,645 to $28,800, respectively.
The regional poverty rate (13.2 percent) is higher than the national (12.6 percent) and state (12.3 percent) average rates, and the number of students going to college also lags behind: 16.1 percent in Western North Carolina compared to 22.5 percent across the state and 39.0 percent nationally. Twelve of the eighteen counties have higher county-level poverty rates than the state and national average. Graham and Swain counties have the highest poverty rates at 19.5% and 18.3%, respectively.
Arts and Recreation Jobs
In July, 2009, the average unemployment rate for the region was 10.6 percent, up 3.8 percent from 6.8% unemployment rate in July, 2008. Moreover, ten of the eighteen counties had unemployment rates exceeding 10 percent. The city of Asheville, the largest metropolitan area in the region, had an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent in July, 2009, compared to 5.0 percent the previous year. North Carolina, overall, had an unemployment rate of 11.0 percent in 2009, and 6.3% in 2008, an increase of 4.7 percent.
Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation Jobs
From 2001 to 2007, there was a general increase in the number of arts, entertainment and recreation mainly in Buncombe, Jackson and Wilkes Counties. All other counties were stable in terms of job numbers for the duration of the period, with exceptions such as Haywood and Henderson, which lost jobs. In terms of distribution, Buncombe County, with the highest population, has the highest number of arts, entertainment and recreation jobs, while Watauga, Henderson, and Jackson Counties represent the other major art centers. Buncombe County’s considerable prominence in this field is highly attributable to the Greater Asheville Area’s expanding arts and craft scene as well as tourism hubs like the Biltmore Estate and the Grove Park Inn.
Forestry Related Jobs
Reporting employment statistics for forestry related sectors is difficult at this scale. In several counties where mills are located, they are so few in number that publication of employment statistics violates their right of privacy. Therefore, contribution of forest-related jobs cannot
accurately be reported for the eighteen county region. However, revenue to the region from total roundwood products indicates the number of forest-related jobs is significant. From 1995 to 2007, the average annual value of total roundwood output delivered to mills in the region, ranged from $110 million to $155.4 million.
Population in the region has steadily increased since the 1970's. This increase is projected to continue into year 2020 for all counties. In 1970, the region’s population was 480,640 people. In 2010, the population grew to 744,630, an increase of 55 percent. The counties with the highest populations include Buncombe, Henderson, Wilkes, and Haywood. The total population is expected to grow at a rate of 9.8 percent over the next ten years, however, this projection may not materialize due to current economic conditions.