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High Tech, High Up
Asheville, long known for its culture 
and urbane flair, quietly emerges as 
an information technology hotbed

By Lawrence Bivens

From his computer workstation, Ian MacDonald gazes out an office window at the Blue Ridge mountains. It is a panorama sparkling in a kaleidoscope of red, yellow and orange leaves against a cloudless afternoon sky. So idyllic is the view that MacDonald, a 32-year-old programmer at Asheville’s e-Worker Technologies, struggles to conceal his giddiness at having such working conditions. It is, after all, only his first week at the company, having just moved from Atlanta, but his expression belies a man who knows he made the right choice.

“My wife and I have always loved Asheville and talked about living here,” the Fairfax, Va., native says, “but there just weren’t that many of these types of companies here.”

Such is surely the sentiment of many who have visited Asheville, seen its extraordinary quality of life and pondered making a home for themselves here. Until recently, chasing such dreams likely would have meant grappling with a labor market top heavy with low-tech, low-wage jobs in heavy industry. But with the arrival of companies like e-Worker, which designs and runs software agents for a diverse list of clients, professional opportunities for the likes of MacDonald and other urbane technophiles fleeing the Big City are becoming more commonplace.

e-Worker announced the selection of Asheville as its headquarters back in June. Moving from a site in nearby Brevard, the company quickly leased office space and ramped up a youthful 15-person workforce with an average wage than is more than twice that for Buncombe County overall.

“We basically outgrew our space in Brevard and had to go somewhere,” explains Rich Purcell, the company’s founder and CEO. After considering Atlanta and Charlotte, Purcell chose Asheville because of an interest he noticed its leaders had in growing software ventures like his. “We were really impressed with the overall vision this community has for attracting high tech firms,” he says.

It turns out that vision was not created by accident. Working together, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission and other community and business leaders set out in 2000 to bring technology companies to Asheville, which they see as just the sort of environment in which today’s knowledge workers would love to live and work.

A Tradition of Creativity

Left: A view of Asheville City Hall

Given Asheville’s pleasant climate, strong educational resources, top-notch health services and easy access to key business destinations such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Greenville-Spartanburg and Knoxville, one would assume its appeal as a corporate outpost is self-evident. But more was needed, and leaders systematically set out to highlight the assets that could get the attention of technology industry executives and entrepreneurs.

Since before the time of Thomas Wolfe, Asheville’s favorite son, the city has tended to attract and inspire creative types: artists, writers, designers, musicians. Thus, it seemed a natural fit for the softer side of the Information Age — the multimedia content providers who work with video, audio, animation, images and text using the World Wide Web, CD-ROMs and DVDs as their delivery vehicles.

It is not a corner of the technology world that is void of economic opportunity. The computer graphics industry, of which multimedia is part, is expected to achieve annual revenues of $150 billion by 2005, according to Machover Associates Corp., a White Plains, N.Y. research firm that tracks the sector. The figure represents more than twice what the industry earned in 1999, and economic impact models estimate that for every multimedia job created, six more arise in related fields to support it.

“We also learned that most companies in part of the technology industry are niche oriented with 50 employees or less,” explains Nancy Foltz, an Asheville marketing consultant who helped author the city’s technology recruitment strategy. “That means they have a fairly small footprint,” one that can easily be accommodated in a community without a large supply of sprawling industry-ready land. It also minimizes the adverse impact economic growth might have on the area’s fabled quality of life.

Such a strategy also leverages the excellent educational resources at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, the numerous private institutions nearby and those at the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNC-A). In 1998, for example, UNC-A unveiled a unique program in multimedia arts and sciences, the only one of its kind in the 16-campus UNC System. Students may concentrate their studies on music, video, 3-D animation or interactive design, but all must complete multi-disciplinary coursework that includes computer science, mass communications, drama, art and music.

“As a liberal arts campus, you don’t tend to think of us as a technology resource,” says UNC-A Chancellor Jim Mullen, “but we are.” The school’s computer science program, he says, is highly regarded nationally, with a faculty that routinely consults with businesses in Asheville and around the United States.

Laying Down the Lines

Becoming a prime technology destination requires more than just access to workers. Asheville leaders know that they will also need a telecommunications infrastructure that can match those found in large metropolitan areas. That is part of the vision behind 750-acre Biltmore Park, the neatly planned community that blends office space, housing, retail, education and more — all wired with the latest fiber optics and networking hardware.

“There is a world class technology infrastructure here,” according to e-Worker’s Purcell, whose firm consumes about 3,200 square feet of space at the park.

Just like access to water, rail and power has long been a basic criterion for arriving companies, being able to count on a speedy Internet and strong digital voice connections is now seen as critical to Asheville’s economic development efforts on all fronts.

“What we’ve done here is far more than real estate development,” explains Jack Cecil, president of Biltmore Farms Inc., the century-old company that controls the park. “It’s about putting together all the pieces that make a community.”

Cecil’s strategy is not entirely original. It is, in fact, the modern incarnation of what his great-grandfather, George Washington Vanderbilt, strived for when he began erecting Biltmore Village in the 1890s — a sustainable community where diverse residents could live, work, learn and play together. “The historical context was already here,” Cecil says. “We’re just putting a 21st Century stamp on it.”

Beside e-Worker Technologies, there are other tenants at the park, including the North American headquarters for Volvo’s Construction Equipment unit. In the late-1990s, the Sweden-based automaker moved its offices from downtown after considering a move to other cities. It now occupies 50,000 square feet at Biltmore Park.

For major employers in and around Asheville, there is a noticeable European flair. Sonopress LLC, part of the Berlin-based media conglomerate Bertelsmann AG, employs more than 1,000 workers at its local production site. The 410,000-square-foot facility makes DVDs, CDs and CD-ROMs. Earlier this year, Continental Teves, a German manufacturer of automotive breaking systems, added 125 high-paying jobs to its already significant Asheville workforce. Others, like Chicago-based Bussman Industries and Ohio’s Eaton Cutler-Hammer, have major manufacturing sites here that ship much of their product to markets overseas. 

At times, Asheville’s positioning as a technology outpost yields dividends in its recruitment of industrial manufacturers. Such was the case earlier this year when BorgWarner Turbo Systems selected the city for a new corporate headquarters and technology center. The firm had maintained a production site in Asheville since 1980. “The fact that companies like Volvo and BorgWarner, which have had a presence in Asheville previously, have brought additional operations here speaks well about the quality of our workforce,” says Dave Porter, who directs the Buncombe County EDC.

“The decisions by BorgWarner, Cutler-Hammer and others to locate engineering and technical support centers here are very encouraging,” says Gordon Myers, an executive with Asheville-based Ingles Markets who chairs AdvantageWest, an economic development partnership that represents 23 western counties, including Buncombe. “The fact that many of these companies already had a presence in the region says a lot about the quality of our workforce.”

In collaboration with others in the region, AdvantageWest has led the way in researching the rapidly changing labor force needs of arriving companies and those already here. The partnership also recently launched an Internet-based resource directory, on the web at, which will be especially valuable to small- and mid-sized firms in minimizing the red-tape that comes with recruiting, hiring, training and managing their workers. “The site further demonstrates our region’s friendliness both to business and technology,” says Myers, who currently chairs NCCBI and serves on a list of statewide leadership roles.

Opportunities at Enka

Even when a prominent corporate name chooses to consolidate its operations elsewhere, Asheville leaders turn the move into an opportunity. That was certainly the case in the suburban Asheville community of Enka, where BASF, the Swiss chemical giant, is shuttering most of its local presence, a move that is expected to shower an ironic array of benefits to the area.

The company, whose Southeast operations are being consolidated in South Carolina, announced in October 2000 that as it vacated Asheville it would deed over its leafy corporate campus to the local community college. With 37 acres and 225,000 square feet of space, the move was hailed by then-Gov. Jim Hunt as “the largest property donation in history to any community college in the country.”

It was an offer officials at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College couldn’t refuse, even though it meant they would have to sink some major capital funds into bringing the 1960s-era buildings up to modern safety and accessibility codes. With help from the state’s higher education bond proceeds, A-B Tech has embarked upon an ambitious plan to convert the site, originally home to American Enka Corp. before it acquisition by BASF, into a small-business incubator, corporate training and conference center, Cisco Systems Networking Academy and more. All told, the campus is projected to generate $3 million in economic largesse annually, according to a study done by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We plan to use much of the space there as a bio-technology incubator,” says K. Ray Bailey, president of the college. Much of the campus is tailor-made for such use. Among other activities BASF conducted there were extensive research, development and testing, and its abundant wet-lab space can readily support bio-tech innovation.

“About $1 million of the $14.1 million we’re getting from the bond package will be going to Enka,” Bailey says. The new facilities will offer welcome relief for A-B Tech’s crowded main campus, which accommodates some 25,000 students enrolled in the school’s curriculum and non-credit programs.

Bio-tech is another arena ripe with exciting economic development opportunities for Asheville and surrounding communities. Given such unique topographic, climatic and other geographic conditions, there is a capacity to cultivate an enormously diverse array of plant life, much of which can offer medicinal qualities.

“Our region has the second most diverse flora anywhere in the world,” explains George Briggs, director of the North Carolina Arboretum. A unit of the University of North Carolina General Administration, the 15-year-old arboretum conducts research and offers educational programs about the area’s vegetation and how its commercial potential might be harnessed. “A-B Tech is already one of our major partners,” continues Briggs, who is eager to see the Enka’s bio-tech incubator move ahead.

Western Carolina University (WCU) and UNC-A also are joining in the redevelopment of the Enka campus, with plans to offer programs and courses that complement the center’s entrepreneurial mission. “We’ve already begun discussion for the three of us (WCU, UNC-A and A-B Tech) to collaborate on a bachelor’s degree program in bio-technology,” says John Bardo, chancellor at WCU. His institution already maintains a visible presence in Asheville, offering undergraduate and master’s-level courses in business, public administration and nursing.

“We’ve been in Asheville since 1937,” Bardo says of WCU, whose main campus in Cullowhee is about an hour’s drive away.

Among the industries benefiting from the steady stream of allied health graduates coming out of WCU and A-B Tech is the city’s huge medical community.

“We get terrific support from WCU’s graduate nursing program,” says Bob Burgin, CEO of Mission St. Joseph’s Hospital, “and we’re blessed to have access to one of the best community colleges in the state.”

The hospital has more than 500 physicians on staff, a testament not only to the role it serves as a regional health center but also to the fact that the city has become a sought-after posting for medical professionals. “In most communities, physicians come and go,” Burgin says. “But very few of those coming here ever want to leave.”

The ubiquity of Mission St. Joseph’s — it is the largest North Carolina employer west of Hickory — is symbolic of Asheville’s rich history as a sort of Mecca for health and healing. Since its earliest days, the city has been a destination for those needing health services, be they from Western North Carolina or beyond. More recently, the city and surrounding region have become a haven for retiree migrants from around the nation. Though most coming to the area are relatively youthful, healthy and engaged, Burgin points out that there is an inevitably high demand for health services by those over age 65.

Asheville’s burgeoning health care industry is also a factor in its technology vision. It is an industry, Burgin and others point out, increasingly reliant on advanced technologies. Thus the community might make an attractive location for software development ventures oriented toward applications in health care delivery.

“There is another hidden benefit there,” explains Nancy Foltz. “Asheville’s doctors may also be a good source of investment capital to drive some of those companies.” She adds that the city’s leadership in the hospitality, outdoor recreation, electronics and industrial equipment industries offers the same potential for software design firms looking to cultivate markets in those industry clusters.

Something for Everyone

Asheville’s population of both new arrivals and those who are proud to be natives is a unique mixture of young hipsters, casual mid-career adults and active retirees. It is one of the very few cities that can boast of being named by Rolling Stone as “Amerca’s New Freak Capital” at the same time Money was calling it “One of the Best Places to Retire.” There is a one-of-a-kind mix here that some label “Mayberry-meets-Berkeley.”

That vibe, local leaders contend, can only complement the city’s efforts to grab the attention of the technology industry, which can count on a multi-generational pool of Internet-bred worker bees, seasoned managers and savvy elders who’ve watched many a business fad come and go.

The third plank in Asheville’s technology vision calls for making the city an outpost for large technology companies — the Oracles or Microsofts of the world — who may view a small satellite office in Asheville as the perfect vehicle for rewarding “high value” employees they’d like to retain. The objective is admittedly something of a stretch, but one that could well catch fire if the city could just land its first big-name tech firm. “Our credibility as an up-and-coming tech center would immediately rise,” Foltz predicts.

Yet, for the time being, most seem content working to land the smaller firms like e-Worker, then watching them blossom. At a time when many tech start-ups are stumbling, e-Worker is signing lucrative contracts with state Medicaid programs and forming partnerships with major names like EDS and PeopleClick. Year 2001 sales figures are expected to triple last year’s, according to Rick Purcell. That is certainly music to the ears of Ian MacDonald, who doesn’t relish a return to the hurly-burly of Atlanta, Northern Virginia or another crowded tech center. Having just purchased a 100-year-old home in nearby Waynesville, he and his family are settling in for what they hope will be the long haul.

“We’re realistic about what can happen, good and bad, in the technology industry,” he says, taking his gaze momentarily off the autumn foliage. “Hopefully, this will be the last stop for us.”

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