The Voice of Business, Industry & the Professions Since 1942
North Carolina's largest business group proudly serves as the state chamber of commerce



"Raleigh looks at us and sees 
tourism  and retirees only, but we 
have a good manufacturing base here, 
with major industries like General Electric, Steelcase, Continental Teves
and Kimberly-Clark.

Chamber of Commerce  President Bob Williford

Community Profile

New Day Dawns

Tourists always have flocked 
to Henderson County; 
now they're staying to buy 
homes and start businesses

Above: A technician sets the controls on a high-temperature chemical reactor at Porvair Fuel Cell Technology, a Hendersonville company that's on the cutting edge of energy supply. Top right: The historic Henderson County courthouse.  

Learn more about Henderson County: Facts & figures; He sells fruit to Fidel; Community Colleges teaches computers and culture; A downtown both beautiful and busy; Company's technology may fuel the future

Residents of Henderson County like to think they have it all — an opinion they don’t mind sharing with anyone who’ll take the time to listen.

“This is one of the most beautiful areas of the country to live, with great outdoor recreation, centrally located to many other wonderful places, and with an unsurpassed quality of life,” says Grady Hawkins, chair of the Henderson County Board of Commissioners. “We have world-class medical facilities and schools, and the lowest tax rate in North Carolina.”

Is it any wonder that people — retirees, young adults and everyone in between — are beating a path to the southwestern reaches of the state? Latest census data shows the county’s population is up to 91,544; of those, 11,256 live in the county seat of Hendersonville. The population has doubled since 1970, and a significant amount of the increase is due to an explosion of retirees. Further, the county swells each June to August thanks to the influx of 20,000 folks who maintain summer homes in the area.

It hasn’t hurt that the community has been featured in several books as one of the best places to live or retire in American, plus being touted by magazines like Money and Kiplinger’s. And a few of its residents are bonafide celebrities — noted golf course architect Tom Fazio is generally regarded as the best in his field, and the bass player for the Little River Band, Wayne Nelson, owns the historic Woodfield Inn in Flat Rock.

 “What we have to offer is a wonderful place to live, an attractive place, an upscale community,” says Blue Ridge Community College President Dr. David Sink, who also regards its versatility as a plus. “We have a great symphony here, and our public library circulation is second only to Orange County in North Carolina.”

It all begins with the land, however. It was lush Cherokee hunting ground more than 200 years ago until the arrival of William Mills, a Tory survivor of the Battle of Kings Mountain who fled into the mountain caves until the Revolutionary War was over. In 1787 Mills received one of the first land grants west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Mills put out fruit trees and they thrived, and his new neighbors imitated his success. Today the county leads the state in apple production and ships its apples around the globe.

The majority of Henderson County sits in a bowl surrounded by the Great Smoky and the Blue Ridge mountains; the county’s elevation reaches as high as 5,000 feet on Little Pisgah Mountain. The towns of Hendersonville and Flat Rock rest in a plateau at an elevation of 2,200 feet, and the configuration of the land shields residents from harsh extremes in weather conditions.

Hendersonville has been known as “The City of Four Seasons” and that mild weather provided a natural attraction even many years ago. The first hotel, the Farmer Hotel in Flat Rock, was completed in 1850 and is now the Woodfield Inn. Some of the wealthiest visitors, especially from the South Carolina Low Country area around Charleston, began to stay for extended periods to escape the heat and diseases of summer. Many built second homes, and Flat Rock became known as “Little Charleston.” An Episcopal church, St. John-in-the-Wilderness, was built expressly for the families from the Charleston area in 1834.

In the northern part of present-day Henderson County the community of Fletcher grew up around a tavern owner by the Fletcher family along the road to Asheville. The Episcopalians also built a church there — Calvary Church — in 1857. But the Baptists had gotten there first, building a church in Fletcher in 1838.

The land that now comprises the county seat of Hendersonville was originally part of the holdings of another Charlestonian, Judge Mitchell King. He not only donated the land but also laid out the new town’s streets. Hender-sonville remained small until the coming of the railroad in the late 1880s. A depot was built downtown in 1902, and it has been restored to its original luster. That’s one of many examples of a county proud of its past, focused on the present and mindful of the future.

Planning for Growth

Chamber of Commerce President Bob Williford and Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development Executive Vice President Scott Hamilton comprise a one-two punch in effectively promoting the county.

In 2001 private funds were used to commission a study by Lockwood Greene Consulting and develop a master plan for economic development. “They looked at our strengths and weaknesses, our labor market, and at what companies would be attracted to the assets we have,” says Williford.

The Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development. a division of the chamber, is working a multi-pronged strategy to attract new industry to replace lost jobs and generate new ones. The group has a new web site,, and has created three new brochures. One brochure touts the county’s economic benefits, while the others target the outdoor recreation industry and the auto components industry.

The partnership also has developed a targeted mailing to companies looking at expansion. Local business leaders are attending national and international trade shows to boost Henderson County’s profile. Hamilton makes trips to Raleigh to promote the county to state officials and legislators.

Henderson officials are working closely with AdvantageWest — a 23 county economic development commission for Western North Carolina — and CarolinaWest, a similar but smaller organization representing the seven counties around Asheville.

Dale Carroll, president and CEO of AdvantageWest, says his group has several examples of involvement with Henderson County. “We’ve provided matching grants to support expanded manufacturing projects there, at General Electric and Borg-Warner Cooling Systems, to allow them to stay competitive,” he says. “There’s the Fletcher Facility, a certified industrial building in the Cane Creek Industrial Park, a 200,000-square-foot facility with 25-foot ceilings and rail service. And we’re launching Blue Ridge Food Ventures, a ‘Value Added Commercial Kitchen’ where fruit and producers in Henderson County can bring their goods and wind up with a product to sell to consumers — such as apple butter or salsa — that will bring in much more profit.”

Late last year AdvantageWest also sponsored a Picasso exhibit at the Arts Center in Hendersonville. “Hender-sonville and New York City are the only two venues east of the Mississippi where this exhibit has been shown,” says Carroll. “We helped with the financial resources to attract this to Hender-sonville, creating another travel and tourism destination.”

Carroll says that partnership also works both ways. “Two of our most active board members are from Henderson County,” he notes. “Sam Neill is an attorney and restaurant owner who has volunteered to chair our Western North Carolina Film Commission. David Reeves is a financial consultant with The Capital Corporation who is heading our Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council and is working to create an investor network for us to help small to medium-size companies get capital to launch their business.

Hamilton stresses that teamwork has been essential. “We have a great deal of support from the community and the county commissioners in implementation of the road map of what we need to do to be successful,” he says.

Williford agrees. “We have become proactive rather than reactive,” he says. “In the past, we waited for someone to call us on the phone. Now we’re knocking on their doors rather than waiting. The goal is to create quality jobs and to increase our county tax base.”

These marketing efforts are fairly new, and Henderson officials are just starting to get some responses. They’ve seen a substantial increase in what Williford calls “tire-kickers,” those people who are interested enough to seek more information related to a potential relocation or expansion.

“Our inquiries are up significantly,” says Hamilton, “in part to our target marketing and how we’re getting the word out about Henderson County.”

Hamilton says that includes spreading the word to information technology and other high-tech companies. Several Henderson County companies already are involved in such operations. Multiview makes software for the Hospice care industry; General Electric, Kimberly-Clark, Porvair, Selee and others are using high-tech systems.

Unemployment remains low in Henderson County, at 3.4 percent in October 2003 from a high six months earlier of 4.5 percent. But the county has lost approximately 1,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000, and that’s not counting the county residents who worked for Agfa and Ecusta, two major plants in Transylvania County next door that closed in recent years and employed residents from both counties. Those losses opened the eyes of Henderson County officials to realize that they need to be in concert with other counties rather than be in competition.

“We do work together,” Williford says, “because plant closings like they had in Transylvania County do affect us. And we realize that a company that locates in the area will employ people from multiple counties plus have an impact on area retail sales. Buncombe County may come to us if they don’t have a site that suites a company’s needs. We’re all in this together.”

“It’s a regional effort with surrounding counties as we try to maximize our efforts,” adds Hawkins. “Recent legislation makes regional cooperation a little bit easier, and we’re trying to capitalize on that.”

‘Good Manufacturing Base’

Manufacturing is a huge part of the economic success of Henderson County, a fact that may get overlooked by visitors but not by local government and business officials. “Raleigh looks at us and sees tourism and retirees only,” says Williford, “but we have a good manufacturing base here, with major industries like General Electric, Steelcase, Continental Teves and Kimberly-Clark.”

Chamber and economic development leaders have worked to identify potential industrial sites. “Two years ago we had a limited number of large and medium-sized industrial sites,” said Williford. “Since that time our property inventory has more than doubled. We are currently working on industrial park development projects as well as site infrastructure enhancements. The general business climate has improved, due in part to the county’s cooperation.”

Liquidlogic President Tom Dempsey is featured on the county’s brochure on outdoor recreation-related manufacturing. The kayak manufacturing company came to the county four years ago and though small, is the kind of business the county aspires to attract. “We’re thrilled to be here,” Dempsey says. “The local officials, government leaders and the chamber were very helpful — above and beyond what I expected. The reasons we chose to locate here were the easy transportation, the strong work force, and the close proximity to outdoor recreation. As you can imagine, for the people who work here, as well as the people we want to attract to work here, outdoor sports are pretty paramount in their lives.”

The whitewater design team heads to the nearby Green River — which Dempsey calls “one of the premier whitewater rivers on the East Coast” — to test its designs. The company employs 12 people in Hendersonville and is where administration, sales, design and testing happen. The manufacturing and distribution factory is in Pennsylvania. The company purchased land in Flat Rock and now has its headquarters there, but plans are to build the factory there in the future as well. Dempsey says the company sells to 300 dealers in North America and another 100 internationally.

Liquidlogic was the creation of several people who were involved in kayaking and saw boat builders being swallowed up by huge conglomerates, Dempsey says. (The company currently sponsors a kayak team that competes around the world.) “In our group are more than 100 years of background in the paddle-sport industry. We wanted to create a company that was focused on the core of the sport, targeting the specialty or independent retailers and not the big box stores.”

Williford says conditions are good for industries looking to relocate. “Even though our unemployment is low, manufacturing companies will not have any trouble finding employees,” he says. “It’s easy to attract people to our area, and we have a strong labor force, with high productivity and a strong work ethic. Blue Ridge Community College is a very strong draw, and we have one of the best public school systems in the state. Our location, with easy access to several interstates, is a positive factor. We have two hospitals and a number of great healthcare services available.”

Four Economic Engines

The economy of Henderson County is driven by four strong engines: manufacturing, which generated $306 million in 2002, retirement income ($253 million), tourism ($158 million) and agriculture ($136 million).

“We strive diligently to keep that four-legged balance,” says Hawkins. “When one is suffering you have the other areas to support you, and that helps tremendously.”

Of those areas, tourism has seen the most dramatic growth, having registered just $28 million in annual revenues just 20 years ago. Retail sales are also strong, having topped $1.07 billion in 2002, and real estate is another big factor. The number of single family units and condos sold climbs steadily each year, according to Van Estes, executive director of the Henderson County Board of Realtors, as does the average cost of a home ($186,000 in 2003).

“We also have a ‘hidden economy’ of people who are not obligated to live where they work,” Williford says. “I call them ‘lone eagles,’ and they may work in software design or sales, but are free to live where they choose and live here because they like the area.”

The county also benefits from an abundance of “half-backs” running around — and these aren’t football players. “Half-backs are people from up north who retire to Florida, get there and realize they don’t like it, and then move again but they don’t go all the way back home. So they go halfway back, to our mountains,” Williford says.

The county is serviced by both the Asheville Regional Airport in Fletcher — which offers service from several major carriers — and the smaller Hendersonville Airport. The county is bisected by Interstate 26, which connects I-40 in Asheville and I-85 in Spartanburg. A new section of I-26 was completed this past year. “The I-26 corridor opens us up to markets from Charleston to the Ohio Valley,” Hamilton says.

Henderson County is unique in that it boasts two major hospitals. Pardee Hospital in Hendersonville is the county’s second largest employer and boasts highly regarded cancer, cardiology and surgery centers. Pardee also offers a joint replacement center.

In Fletcher, Park Ridge Hospital has been open since 1910 and today is known for its advanced medical technology. Park Ridge opened a cancer center in 2002 and began operating a mobile medical unit program in 2003. “That we have two outstanding hospitals is another attraction to retirees,” says Williford.

“It’s a competitive market because of the proximity of those two hospitals, plus Mission up in Asheville,” adds Hawkins. “But it’s not a competition, per se. Each of the hospitals has various specialties that set them apart, have a lot of other medical facilities nearby, and all three have excellent emergency rooms.”

Those come in handy when school’s out. Henderson County is known as the “Camp Capital of the United States,” with dozens of summer church and private camps that operate in the area. That also has an impact on population, as families come for the camp and like the region so much they come back as permanent residents. “Henderson County, Asheville and the Brevard area have the largest concentration of summer camps in the nation,” says Melody Heltman, executive director of Henderson County Travel and Tourism for the past 14 years. “That brings in a lot of parents who deposit their children at camp and they stay for a week of vacation.”

Blue Ridge Community College is a strong partner with economic efforts, and the public schools remain another draw for new residents. The college and the economic development partnership are working together to develop a business incubator program.

“Every year we’re among the top school systems in the state,” Williford says. “The average SAT score is 1,049 (eighth best in the state), and we also do well in the statewide testing that’s done.”

The county has done so well in education that just about every school in the system rates as a school of excellence or a school of distinction, notes Dr. Tom Burnham, Henderson County Schools superintendent. “We are very goal driven,” he says. “We started with strategic planning about eight years ago and we work toward those goals. The school board revises our plan annually and we regularly report on how we’re doing. That way we always know where we’re going, what we’re working on and how we’re performing.”

Tourism Revenue Doubles

Just as the surrounding mountain ranges help shield Henderson County from harsh weather, the travel and tourism industry has helped the area manage through recent difficult economic times that have stymied much of the rest of the state.

Tourism has a major economic impact on Henderson County, generating $161 million in revenue in 2002, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. That’s more than double the figure for just 12 years ago. More than 2,100 jobs are directly attributable to travel and tourism, and Henderson ranks 17th among N.C. counties in terms of tourism revenue.

“The tourism industry is a mainstay of our economic growth. It’s one of our main products,” says Heltman of the tourism department. “Even before there were interstates this was a major destination for travelers and that visitor spending made a big difference here. Today it’s still a major producer for our county’s economy. The big attractions have put us on the map. And there’s so much wonderful scenery and open space. That’s what people come for.” Heltman calls the county a “driving destination” with no convention business. “It’s individuals, mainly, and a lot of weekend getaways,” she says.

“Hendersonville is perfectly situated,” says John Sheiry, owner of the Waverly Inn on Main Street and chair of the county’s tourism board. “We’re within an easy drive of millions and millions of people. The kind of environment that Henderson County has matches up nicely with current travel trends. We’re relatively strong compared to the rest of the country.”

There’s a scene that Sheiry has witnessed time and again. Guests come and stay at his inn, and after their third or fourth visit they begin looking at real estate. Residents from Florida and some of the other hot areas of the South come during the summer and like it so much they stay, or at least buy or build a second home in the mountains. “You’ll see a lot of car tags from Florida,” Heltman says, though residents from other state, particularly those in the Midwest, are regulars — “especially Ohio, Michigan and Illinois,” she says. “I call that ‘our bread and butter.’ I always target our advertising in the northern states when they’re snowed in.”

The constant influx of new faces is one factor that helps keep the county’s leaders on top of their games. “We continue to address issues that will help us in the future,” says the chamber’s Williford. “We’re working to identify industrial sites. Our existing local industries are healthy and many are expanding, which is always a positive sign. Both hospitals are expanding. We have groups working on projects to restore the historic courthouse, to build up the south end of town, to create a new performing arts center. There are a lot of energizing things people are working on to make our community even better in the future.”

He Sells Fruit to Fidel

Left: Dupont State Forest offers more than 10,000 acres of forest, trails and waterfalls.

Not many North Carolina farmers can say they’ve “hung out” with Fidel Castro. But Allen Henderson of Henderson’s Best Produce has been to Cuba five times and met with Castro three times, including spending seven hours with the dictator one day.

But don’t fret, it’s strictly a business relationship. Henderson’s company sells apples to Cuba through an agreement worked out with the blessing of the federal government.

Henderson is a fifth generation Henderson County farmer, growing apples and vegetables on the same land his family has farmed for centuries. “I guess we have to call it agri-business since it’s gotten so big,” he says. “But in the 1800s my grandfather had a route into upstate South Carolina, delivering produce on a buckboard wagon with four mules. My father made deliveries to independent grocers using a flatbed truck. Today we have a fleet of 12 tractor-trailers delivering fruits and vegetables along the East Coast, from Key West to Canada.”

Henderson’s Best Produce was one of the first American companies to do business with Cuba, a relationship that began after Henderson attended a U.S.-sponsored food and agribusiness showcase in Havana. “It was quite a complicated process,” he says, “but well worth it. Cuba is a good customer; they pay promptly and in cash only, which is good for any business. We get paid before the apples reach their docks.”

Henderson says Castro is very personable, someone who wants to draw you into his world. “He’s a strong believer in his form of government and he likes to talk about that, to pull you right in even if you don’t agree with his ideologies. We discussed everything from the History Channel to growing fruit. He’s like a grandfather. You can tell he cares a lot about his people and feels sad at the way things are there.”

Henderson says his Spanish is “lousy” but that he’s working on it — with good reason. Many of his company’s 100 employees are Hispanic.

For all of Henderson’s success on the global trade scene, he worries about the future at home. Farmable land in Henderson County continues to dwindle in the face of development, something that threatens the county’s agriculture industry.

“I work with the chamber and the chamber works with all our local agri-businesses, including small farmers, apple growers and the many greenhouses we have here.” Henderson says. “We’re trying to preserve our way of life. But people want to move here and farmers who might have paid $1,000 an acre for their land are now being offered $30,000 an acre by a developer. Farming is a tough life, and the average age of our county farmers is between 55 and 65, and when someone offers you that much money, you wonder if maybe it’s time to cash out.

“My grandfather paid maybe $100 an acre, and now I have apples growing on land that has a tax value of $35,000 to $45,000 an acre. It makes it tough on farmers just in terms of paying our taxes.”

He believes that the solution is controlled growth. “I read somewhere that eight people a day move into Henderson County. That’s a household or two looking for housing. I talk to people who move down from Michigan or Ohio and the reason that most of them left is too much development around them, subdivisions going up everywhere, no more beautiful countryside around them. They move to get away from that, but what they’re leaving they’re creating here.

“There needs to be some kind of plan where farm land is set aside, and it needs to be somewhere other than the flood plains. We need legislative help like other counties have had, where land is left for agricultural uses, where we leave something for our children’s future and our heritage of farming.”

Henderson says it pains him to see local farms steadily diminish. “I’ve not yet seen a housing development torn down and an orchard planted in its place. Once it’s turned into housing it’s gone to farming forever, even if it’s the richest land on earth.” -- Neill Caldwell

Facts & Figures

Historic Hendersonville, the Henderson County seat, is located between the Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge mountains, 22 miles south of Asheville and 15 miles north of the South Carolina state line.

Henderson County is approximately 2,200 feet above sea level. Its coldest month is January when the average temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Its hottest month, at an average of 80 degrees, is July.

Manufacturing is the county’s largest employer at 23.5 percent. Other top segments include retail/wholesale trade (18.7), the lodging industry (11.2), and healthcare (11.1).

The county has a property tax value of 47.5 cents per $100 value.

To learn more, contact the Greater Hendersonville Chamber of Commerce (828-692-1413, or the Henderson County Travel & Tourism Department (800-828-4244,

From Computers to Culture, Community College Offers It All

Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC) in Flat Rock could serve as a blueprint for other educational institutions in the state in terms of working with its surrounding community to respond to a changing economic climate. For that reason, the school is another plus the county can use in attracting new industry.

The college is continually working in other ways to adapt to a changing region, says its president for the past 16 years, Dr. David Sink. “We’re being sensitive to a changing economic climate and also a new population, which includes retirees and Hispanics,” he says. “We’re maximizing our resources by forming partnerships with local business and industry and nonprofits. For every new industry that comes into our area, and for existing local industry that has expanded, we’ve helped train the workforce.”

BRCC has reached out to dislocated workers to retrain them in other skills, Sink notes. “Many of them are more than 50 years old and have worked for the same company for more than 20 years, and then one day they’re suddenly out of a job.”

The school has earned superior ratings in each of the past three years, one of just three community colleges in the state that can make that claim. It’s also been nominated in three of the past four years for a University of Florida program that recognizes the top three community colleges in the nation in terms of programs, administration and workforce development.

Further evidence that something must be going right is that enrollment is up by 50 percent in the past four years. That includes thousands of local retirees who are participating in the college both as teachers and students. “We’ve had a tremendous explosion in our retirement population, which makes my job very easy because I have a very talented pool I can draw from,” Sink says. That includes former college administrators and professors, retired company CEOs, even former professional musicians.

The school’s Center for Lifelong Learning offers a strong program for area retirees. For a $10 one-time, lifetime membership fee, residents age 55 and over can take a variety of courses ranging from the life of Carl Sandburg to national security issues to fly fishing. Retired professionals contract with the college to teach the courses they want to offer. With more than 1,800 members, the program is one of the fastest growing of its kind in the nation and illustrates just how the local retirement community is utilizing the college.

“If you visit our computer labs you’ll find they’re absolutely jam-packed, standing room only,” said Sink. “And there’s hardly anyone in there younger than 60 years old.”

BRCC also offers a concert series to help meet the community’s high level of interest in cultural activities. And there are plans on the drawing board to build a creative retirement village that would partner with the college on various programs.

Sink says the college’s Family Literacy program helps Hispanic families to become bilingual and offers tutoring for Hispanic children to help with their homework in the local public schools. The school offers English as a Second Language classes and helps Spanish speakers earn their GEDs. “Our new neighbors from Mexico are very strong contributors to our local economy and labor force,” Sink says. “Many are establishing their own businesses.”

New programs are continually evolving. “The college has worked with the chamber and the Partnership for Economic Development to help identify jobs for the future, and we’ve looked at the creative side of our curriculum,” Sink says. We’re not just offering the same old programs as we’ve offered in the past.”

One interesting partnership that the college has former is with Porvair Industries, a local company that makes components for fuel cells. Funded by a grant from the federal government, the school and the company have created the first two-year fuel cell technology program in the country.

BRCC’s automotive technology program has received national certification, making it the only school in Western North Carolina to be so honored. Blue Ridge also is partnering with other regional colleges on a biotechnology program.

Further, the school is the only community college in the country that has a nursing home, a hospice care facility, an adult day care center and a children’s day care on its campus, all of which provide clinical settings for its classroom programs in those areas.

Lastly, BRCC offers a Job Link Center for people who want to find employment, and partners with the literacy council to teach adults to read.

With all the new programs, the traditional community college student — someone who enrolls right out of high school — remains the fastest growing part of BRCC. “We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of those students,” Sink says. “And many of those are students who may not have had this opportunity a few years ago.”

To make the school even more attractive, BRCC has begun an intercollegiate athletics program, the only junior college in Western North Carolina to do so. Thus far the college has fielded a baseball team, raising more than a half-million dollars to build a field, and will begin a women’s volleyball team this year.

“Our educational foundation has been a major supporter of athletics and we’re very excited about it,” says Sink, noting that the foundation raises money for endowments, gives hundreds of scholarships to students and donates money to start new programs. Sink says that the first endowed teaching chair will soon be established by the foundation, which he believes may be the first in the state’s system of 59 community colleges. And here’s more proof: BRCC has been proclaimed a “Well Work Site” by the National Wellness Council, thanks to a health program for employees that was provided seed money by the foundation.

Sink says that the college is creating an honors program where students would earn their two-year degree and then be able to transfer into any of the top schools in the nation, including Ivy League schools. “We’re about a year away from being able to say to residents of Henderson County, ‘Would you like your child to go to Yale?’ And we envision creating a university center where you can physically stay on campus and earn your bachelor’s and eventually master’s degrees.

“It’s an exciting time to be here,” Sink adds. “There are an abundance of opportunities for people to make use of the college. And I feel like working at our community colleges is one place where people can really make a difference.”  — Neill Caldwell

A Downtown Both Beautiful and Busy

Hendersonville’s picturesque downtown is unlike many others in the state in that it has never fully lost its luster to residents and tourists. While the outlying areas have grown to have their share of big-box stores and shopping centers, local officials have seen to it that both types of businesses prosper.

The success is largely due to the foresight of town and county officials years ago, and the fact that Hendersonville has been one of the strongest participants in the state’s Main Street program. “We do have a strong downtown,” says John Sheiry, owner of The Waverly Inn on Main Street, “thanks to a great executive director and a great board. And we’ve had great restaurants emerge here even in the face of a soft economy.”

The executive director is Jim Kastetter, who has a simple theory about America’s shopping habits that help explain Hendersonville’s downtown success. “I divide it into ‘things we need’ and ‘things we want,’ ” he says. “The mall and Wal-Mart take care of things we need. We in downtown Hendersonville offer those things we want. We actually offer lots of wonderful things that people want. So there’s no real competition from the mall and the big-box stores.”

Hendersonville leaders have made remarkable responses to a series of challenges. Back in the 1950s, downtown parking was already becoming a problem, so the city established a corporation to purchase or lease property for the city to ultimately convert to parking. In the ’60s, city planners commissioned a study of the central business district that predicted many future challenges. In the ’70s, a Merchants Association was created to slow the flight of businesses from downtown and declining property values. A delegation went to Grand Junction, Colo., a city that had successfully tackled similar problems, and returned with an idea for a special tax district that would fund improvements. Two hundred and fifty local business leaders — some with no direct connection to downtown — put up $1,000 each to get the ball rolling.

That marked a turning point. The Main Street traffic pattern was redesigned into its unique gentle serpentine curves that are pedestrian- and driver-friendly and provide angled parking spaces that are easier to navigate for the city’s large retirement population. Landscaping was done, with large planters added and numerous benches. Downtown Hendersonville Inc. was created in 1986, the city became part of the state and national Main Street programs. In 1989 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today the major retailers have been replaced with dozens of locally owned stores and specialty shops, plus 21 restaurants in a 12-block area. “We do have four ‘benign’ franchises,” says Kastetter, “which are Mast General Store, which has several stores across western North Carolina, Kilwin’s, one of four shops in the state, New York Burritos, an upscale restaurant for wraps and sandwiches, and then Western Auto, which has been on Main Street for 45 years.”

Twelve festivals, including the N.C. Apple Festival over Labor Day weekend, bring more visitors into downtown, as does the diversity of downtown offerings, Kastetter notes. “Five or six years ago we were know as an ‘antiques town.’ Now there are just as many restaurants and jewelers as antique shops,” he says.

“Hendersonville’s downtown is a unique, vibrant shopping district,” said Robin Farquhar, executive director of the Flat Rock Playhouse. “It’s a great alternative to the mall, with all its specialty shops and restaurants. It’s been fun to see that grow.” — Neill Caldwell

Porvair's Jim Stike says the federal government, energy and oil companies are behind fuel-cell technology

May Fuel the Future

Hendersonville-based Porvair Fuel Cell Technology is on the leading edge of an exciting new energy source. Fuel cells are one of several alternative energy resources that could make things better for the environment and eliminate American dependence on oil.

President George W. Bush talked about fuel cell technology in his 2003 State of the Union address, and announced in the federal budget that the U.S. would spend more than $1.7 billion on developing hydrogen as a power source over five years.

A fuel cell produces electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen, and its only byproduct is harmless water vapor. It has no moving parts, and in principle operates like a battery. However, unlike a battery, a fuel cell does not run down or require recharging while providing electricity, so long as fuel is continually supplied. There are different types of fuel cells and their applications range from powering a handheld PDA to powering utility plants.

“This is a clean, non-polluting, energy efficient way of making power,” says Porvair President Jim Stike, “that’s very high-tech and futuristic. The federal government is very much involved in this research, as are all the energy and oil companies.”

The technology has been around since the 1960s, as NASA used fuel cells to power its Apollo moon missions and its fleet of space shuttles. But only in the past few years has the technology exploded and applications for more routine uses became possible.

Porvair, a spin-off from its sister company, Selee, an advanced ceramics company in Hendersonville, makes advanced materials and components for fuel cells that could power cars, computers, homes and offices. Fuel cells could power your washer and dryer and do not need to be connected to the power grid. But transportation seems to be the place where fuel cells can become an everyday item most quickly, as auto companies work to replace their internal combustion engine cars with electric motors powered by fuel cells that do not have the limitations of regular batteries.

For fuel cells to be commercially viable, they need to be smaller, lighter and cheaper, says Stike. “The technology is currently very expensive, but that’s where we come in,” he adds. “Fuel cells have to become smaller, more efficient and most cost efficient.”

 Porvair started with just five employees but now has 60, and continues to broaden its offerings of products. “We’ve positioned ourselves to be a major player to make components,” Stike says. “We make those parts and sell them to fuel cell companies.”

 Porvair is partnering with Blue Ridge Community College to train its workforce. “We work with them to teach the technical aspects of fuel cells,” Stike says, “because in the future we will need a lot of people who can work on fuel cells. Dr. (David) Sink is trying to be very forward-looking in a new area of job creation. Before fuel cell technology can become commercial, there will be a need for technicians to work on them.”

Stike is trying to bring an actual fuel cell to Henderson County and put Porvair components in it “so that all the schools in the area can be introduced to the technology first hand.”

Stike says that Henderson County is industry friendly, but that he is sometimes frustrated with the state of North Carolina. “The legislature doesn’t get it,” he says, “with all the taxes they levy on industry and the restrictions they try to put on. Getting a permit to buy a new piece of equipment is like going through hell, with all the red tape. On balance North Carolina is not where it needs to be. Look how they’ve treated the textile industry, letting all those jobs go overseas without much of a fight.”

Stike says that it remains a very exciting time for the fledging industry. “It’s a little like Henry Ford saying ‘now we’ve made one car; how do we make a million?’ Or like the Wright Brothers after their first flight. We ask ‘how can you make fuel cells so everyone can afford them and enjoy the benefits of this clean power source?’ That’s what a lot of people and companies are working on right now.”   — Neill Caldwell

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