The big economic picture

How's Rutherford County doing?
Jun. 13, 2013 @ 05:22 AM

Economically, North Carolina is heading in the right direction.

That's according to the latest six-month North Carolina Economic Outlook issued by Dr. Mike Walden, economist and William Neal Reynolds Distinguished professor at North Carolina State University.

In the study, Walden predicted the state will add 100,000 new jobs in 2013 and again in 2014, leaving the state's unemployment rate at 6.8 percent at the end of this year and 6.2 percent in 2014.

However, not all areas of the state will share in the fruits of the potential economic growth.

"The problem is that most of the areas that are not tied to big metro areas are not going to experience that growth," Walden said. "A lot of that can be due to workforce and availability."

Rutherford County is one of those areas.

The county has experienced unemployment between 12-13 percent over the last year. Figures released for April indicated the county's jobless rate dropping below 12 percent for the first time in over three years.

Historically, the county's unemployment rate has dropped at a slower pace than the state's.

And, while areas like Asheville, Durham-Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Cary are expected to have large economic growth and a further reduction in unemployment, rural counties like Rutherford will see less growth, according to Walden.

"Historically, Rutherford County is a foothills county that had a lot of its employment in textiles," Walden said. "Unfortunately, that industry was the biggest employer and those have downsized considerably.

"Those things happened in other areas but places like Durham and Charlotte have been able to find other industry to replace it. Counties like Rutherford County have not been able to find those replacement industries."

He said one of the issues for Rutherford County is attempting to rebrand itself after the exodus of the textile industry.

"That challenge has been a struggle for counties like Rutherford," Walden said. "Unfortunately, the new jobs that are being created that are high-paying require a different set of training that rural counties sometimes do not have."

The Rutherford County Economic Development Commission (EDC), in conjunction with Greenfield Development, has completed work on a target market study aimed at providing the county with certain advanced manufacturing industries to focus its recruitment efforts.

"It is very in-depth," said Matt Blackwell EDC director. "They reviewed buildings we have, infrastructure, sites available for industrial development and our strengths and weaknesses in the county."

Part of the process to put the report together included touring the county as well as interviews with businesses and individuals to assess needs in Rutherford County.

In addition to looking at areas that the county currently owns, Greenfield also looked at other areas in the county that have the potential for future development, Blackwell said.

"We want to be able to capitalize on our strengths and change our weaknesses to strengths," Blackwell said.

But Walden said Rutherford County can go a step farther is seeking out new opportunities.

"When we think of economic growth and economic development, we think about bringing in something that has a product to sell," Walden said. "One thing that local leaders can think about is to look at the assets and what can be built on."

He suggested county leaders to "think outside the box."

"One trend we know that is happening is that the baby boomer generation is retiring and they are moving South to warmer weather," Walden said. "North Carolina has been able to get a lot of retirees but that slowed down over the last few years. I have suggested that some counties establish themselves as great areas for these boomers to move to."

While establishing itself as a place for retirees won't have an impact on the jobless rate, bringing new residents to the county can help broaden the tax base, Walden said.

"Rutherford County has all the factors that baby boomers look for: cheaper cost of living and a great climate," Walden said.