The Transylvania Economic Alliance is the professional economic development organization for North Carolina’s Transylvania County, the city of Brevard, and the town of Rosman. The alliance is unusual in that it represents a collaborative effort of both private and public sector organizations. Having government and key community leaders work collaboratively on economic development has proven to be a very successful strategy for Transylvania County.
Transylvania County is a small rural community located just outside of the urban hub of Asheville, North Carolina. It has a population of roughly 34,000 people, 8000 of whom are located in the county seat Brevard, one thousand in the town of Rosman, and the rest in various townships and unincorporated communities. With all the aesthetic beauty of rural North Carolina and reasonably close access to the urban amenities of Asheville, Transylvania County is something of a hidden gem. Those who find themselves there are often drawn by a love of the great outdoors.
Transylvania County is situated in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounded by the stunning North Carolina forest. The county is home to most of the Pisgah National Forest’s 500,000 acres. This is a travel destination for campers; there are no fewer than ten campsites within the county, ranging from relatively small day camps to very large, established girls’ and boys’ camps, some of which have been in business for over seventy-five years. These campsites have built a legacy of people who have been visiting them for years, often generation after generation. Camp life has given Transylvania County an important place in the hearts of many.
Visitors to Asheville are often looking for a breath of country air, and many of the outdoor hot spots that are promoted in the region are located in Brevard and Transylvania County. Transylvania is named for its landscape as the word means “across the forest,” and some have called it “the land of the waterfalls,” as 250 beautiful rivers flow over falls throughout the region including the French Broad River, one of the largest rivers in the Southeast. Whitewater falls, at 410 feet high, is one of the highest waterfalls in the Eastern United States. Framed by the mountains and the forest, the beauty of the natural landscape has a way of staying with a person long after they leave.
Recent years have been an important transitional period for the county. Since the early 1900s, the economic base of the county depended primarily on lumber companies that set operations in the region to take advantage of the surrounding forest. Then, in the 1930s, a significant percentage of the region’s employment base was taken over by a new manufacturing company that had built a facility in the area.
But as time rolled on, a transformation was taking place. “Over time, we’ve transitioned from a traditional mill town into a really unique and dynamic place,” says Transylvania Economic Alliance Executive Director Josh Hallingse.
The alliance was formed in the eighties by a group of private stakeholders primarily from manufacturing and industrial operations. And as the community transformed, the alliance changed with it, bringing public sector groups into the fold. Today, the organization functions as a public-private partnership with a portion of its revenue generated by public sources and other revenues generated by private investors within the group.
The region is consistently ranked as one of the top destinations, not just for travel, but for living and raising a family. National Geographic called it one of the top small communities in America, Bike Magazine referred to it as the cycling capital of the south, and it has been dubbed America’s best kept secret.
Over the last decade, the business community in Transylvania County has gathered much attention. Last year, Site Selection Magazine listed it among the top one hundred micropolitan areas in the United States, and Nerdwallet.com called it one of the top ten places to start a business. These many accolades are testaments to the active nature of the community, the culture, and the abundant natural assets that generate so much attention for the region.
Half of the county is composed of public land, including the Pisgah National Forest, the Dupont State Forest, and Gorges State Park. Many of the companies that have moved into the region have been drawn to these natural assets. One such company – Gaia Herbs – built a production facility on a 250-acre organic farm in 1999. The company grows high-quality natural herbs that are made into health products. Gaia has become Transylvania County’s largest private sector employer, providing jobs for 200 people and a leading name in the rapidly-growing natural products industry.
Many of the people who learn about Transylvania County through the region’s many camps later return to work and live in the community; others return even later to retire. One result of this is that the county tends to attract exceptional cultural amenities. Brevard College is an example of this and a feature of Transylvania County. This private, liberal arts college, with more than eight decades of history, began as a music school and has thrived on the arts ever since, with roughly 750 students and a staff of over 150 people. For a community of 34,000 people, having a college like Brevard is a rare thing.
“They bring a lot of young talent into a small community,” says Hallingse. “We’re blessed to have an infusion of young people here.” Brevard College’s faculty and staff are very invested in the community, an immeasurable boon from a community leadership standpoint.
Brevard Music Center music camp has been internationally recognized as a leader in its industry. It appeals to top music students from across the nation and abroad. They come to Brevard to train under world-class instructors throughout the spring, summer, and fall.
The music center’s infusion of very talented, young people provides the community with access to brilliant musical performances. These range from the popular bluegrass group Steep Canyon Rangers – possibly best known for their collaborations with actor Steve Martin – to world-renowned classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma. While so many small mountain towns are left to the ways and the ideas of the past, Transylvania County is a vibrant community moving forward with fresh faces and fresh cultural influence.
The economic alliance has an uncommon approach to economic development. It is governed by key stakeholders who are appointed to the board of directors from various community groups such as the tourism development authority, the main street organization known as the Heart of Brevard, and the chamber of commerce.
Taking so many aspects of the community into consideration when thinking about the economy gives a complete understanding of all that affects it. This allows for the development of strategies that are more attuned to the specific needs of the community. The alliance’s primary focus is on working with businesses that are already established in the area. The county sees most of its economic growth in wage increases of existing employers, and ensuring the success of those businesses is something that the alliance works on diligently.
Another aspect of the alliance’s strategy is involving itself in the development of sites and buildings in the region. One of the challenges of being in a small mountain community where the majority of the land is public is that it creates a shortage in marketable sites and buildings. Add to this, so many beautiful mountains and rivers mean floodplains that further limit the access to developable land for commercial and industrial real estate. The alliance has proactively worked to bring new industrial sites into the inventory. Currently, it is in the process of building a 60,000-square-foot light manufacturing building in the Pisgah Forest.
Transylvania County has been called America’s best-kept secret. It is unusual to find such a charming mountain town that can combine a rural pace of life with fresh perspective and forward-moving culture. The natural advantage of being tucked into such a beautiful landscape keeps the community growing and evolving. “There’s a lot to this community,” says Hallingse. “Some you can quantify; some you can’t, but we’re proud of who we are.”