May 30, 2016|By Erika McGilley & Dagny Leonard| Community Development

"40 years ago, almost every building here had caution tape around it.”

We are driving through Asheville’s Pack Square during a city tour with Becky Anderson, Asheville’s former director of economic development and one of the many citizens who helped make Asheville what it is today—a city rich with history, culture and a distinctly local flavor influenced by the mountains and beautiful landscape surrounding it. She is also a friend and former board member of NCIF.

Today Pack Square is surrounded by beautiful historic buildings, the art deco City Hall and a park that is often abuzz with activity. But in the early 1980s, suburban malls had pulled businesses away from Asheville’s city center, and it wasn’t uncommon to see buildings that were boarded up or surrounded by caution tape. To bring business back, a developer proposed to build a downtown mall that would have overtaken 11 city blocks. The community came together to defeat the mall referendum, and set to work reviving downtown Asheville.

ED Pack Square Flickr Payton ChungPack Square in Asheville, North Carolina. Photo by Payton Chung/Flickr.

The determination and entrepreneurial spirit that set Asheville on its path to success can be seen across Western North Carolina, an area surrounded by national parks (such as Chimney Rock Park, the Black Mountains and Pisgah National Forest), beautiful landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation.

Western North Carolina is teeming with entrepreneurs who are starting businesses, strengthening their communities and protecting the natural resources that make the region so special. NCIF, which works in communities across Appalachia and the Southeast, provides debt lending and technical assistance for small businesses with creative ideas at the intersection of the environment and the economy. We provide flexible capital solutions to help these businesses reach the next phase of growth, often working in collaboration with local partners such as Mountain BizWorks, The Support Center, Self-Help Credit Union and the Rural Center.

We recently brought some of these entrepreneurs together during NCIF’s Western North Carolina “Green Entrepreneur Spotlight,” where we got the chance to hear firsthand about their passion and determination to build businesses that are strengthening the local economy, creating jobs and using natural resources responsibly. 

In attendance were Chip and Nicole Owen, who spent nights making dinner with a camping stove and sleeping in the building that would become Innovation Brewing. They worked furiously to brew beer and prepare the space for opening, and were still building tables as the first customers walked in the door. In the beginning, they were brewing four batches a day, seven days a week, and continuously swapping shifts brewing and tending bar. With a loan from NCIF, they were able to expand their brewing space, which overlooks Scott Creek in Sylva, North Carolina, and install solar panels that have cut their energy costs in half. Now, they have 30 house-brewed beers on tap and employ 11 people. 

ED ChipNicoleOwen InnovationBrewingNicole and Chip Owen (first and second from right) from Innovation Brewing, along with other Spotlight participants. Photo by Dagny Leonard.

We heard from Andrea and Graham Duvall, who are determined to change the food system by making healthy, sustainably-grown food more accessible and by connecting consumers in Western North Carolina to the local farmers who are growing it. They renovated a warehouse at Smith Mill Works, a former poinsettia farm whose five acres of greenhouses and warehouse space laid dormant for 15 years before becoming home to local growers and sustainable businesses. NCIF originally gave Mother Earth Produce a micro-loan for a second delivery van to help the couple expand their business. They are now working with 30 local farmers and food artisans who use sustainable practices for their fresh food delivery service. They pack more than 200 customized bins of local, organic food for delivery per day, and employ five full-time staff.

ED AndreaGrahamDuvall MotherEarthProduceAndrea and Graham Duvall, Mother Earth Produce. Photo by Dagny Leonard.

Also participating in “Green Entrepreneur Spotlight” was Alexis Deal, who for many years rode through Saluda, North Carolina, as she was biking the Greenville Watershed. Each time she passed an empty, historic home just one block off of the charming town’s main street, she said to herself, “I know what I need to do.” With help from NCIF, Alexis, who is schooled in art and design, purchased the home and is renovating it herself. This summer, she’ll open the Blue Firefly Inn, which will provide a welcome respite for passing cyclists, lead its own bike tours and attract eco-tourists and outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy Saluda and its beautiful surrounding landscape. She also wants to “lead by example” by running her business in an eco-friendly way, using methods like water catchment systems and creating a kitchen garden so that guests know where their food is coming from.

ED Blue Firefly Inn Alexis DealBlue Firefly Inn. Photo by Alexis Deal.

This is only a taste of the energy that these entrepreneurs are putting into not just their businesses, but into their communities. We also heard from others—such as M R Gardens, Bailey Mountain Bike Park, Flymen Fishing Company and Gypsy Queen Cuisine—who are inspired by, and integrating into, the environment around them to create opportunities for jobs and economic growth. These small businesses are redefining conservation by finding creative ways to protect and connect with the natural world. And together they are having a big impact. Since 2001, the 183 businesses NCIF has worked with have created more than 3,000 jobs in Appalachia and the Southeast.   

To see firsthand their passion, perseverance and determination to realize their dreams is nothing short of inspiring. Their innovative spirit is improving their communities, boosting the local economy, and protecting the natural environment that sets Western North Carolina apart. We’re so proud to work for an organization whose mission helps make this possible. It’s what the Fund is all about: conservation that works for people, that strengthens the places where they live. Conservation that works for America.

Check out Erika McGilley’s recent interview on Western North Carolina Public Radio to hear more about NCIF, our local partners such as Mountain BizWorks and The Support Center, and other businesses that were featured during our Green Entrepreneur Spotlight.


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