During the past year, I have visited most of our largest employers, met with their employees, and executive teams. Here are some of the questions I have asked and the most common answers:

Question: “Why is your company in Ashe (or Watauga) County?”

Most common answer: “Because this region has the best, most dedicated workers.”

Question: “What is the biggest challenge you face in growing your business.”

Most common answer: “Finding and training enough skilled workers.”

Having started a small business and being a small business owner myself, their responses resonated with my personal experience.  The number one job in building a business and developing our economy is investing in people! That’s why restoring the cuts in education (early childhood education, public schools, community colleges, and universities) and addressing our regions needs in healthcare are the first steps in making Ashe and Watauga Counties more prosperous.

Our Assets

I have repeatedly asked, “Why are Ashe and Watauga Counties special?” Here are the answers you have given me during the past year: Our people, the mountains, our educators, tourism, agriculture, outdoor recreation, our national park (The Blue Ridge Parkway), our state parks, our artists and musicians, our towns, and more.

Our Challenges

Yet at the same time, someone said, “This is a great place to live, but a hard place to make a living.” Economic developers have said repeatedly that politicians in Raleigh have forgotten us. One said, “They don’t know there is a North Carolina west of Interstate 77.” Another said, “Northwest North Carolina does not have effective communication and coordination with the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.” When I asked one business leader, “When was the last time a new industry moved to the area?” he said, “That’s a good question. I’ll have to look into that.” The answer may be GE Aviation in Ashe County in 2007. Has it really been 11 years since a major industry moved to this region? We have a problem!  Finally, another business leader said, “Our representatives are “asleep at the wheel” and have done little to promote Ashe and Watauga Counties economically.” All this can and must change when I am elected to represent you in Raleigh.

New Opportunities

Western North Carolina (and the state of North Carolina) needs a “Trade Skill Triangle” to parallel the state’s Research Triangle in the eastern part of the state. The goals of initiative should be to identify the skills that will power our economy for the next 30 years, make sure those skills are available through our community colleges and universities, and address the massive shortage of skilled labor in our region.

Thanks to the foresight of Representative Cullie Tarleton and the late Senator Steve Goss in 2008-2010, US 221 is becoming a 4-lane highway. This will connect our communities like never before and create new opportunities that must be explored. Deep Gap is soon to become one of the major crossroads in Northwest North Carolina. In the next 20 years, Deep Gap could become a major economic center in the region just 10-15 minutes from West Jefferson, Jefferson, Boone, and Blowing Rock. Furthermore, being near the corner of Ashe, Watauga, and Wilkes Counties, it provides a unique opportunity for leaders of the three counties to work together, bringing the strengths of all to create economic development.

I have long believed that technology is the greatest untapped industry in Northwest North Carolina. I have taught Computer Science for 37 years (27 years at App State) and own and operate a technology company, RaysWeather. Others in the region have been behind the scenes building the business culture, capital, and understanding our assets to make us ready for rapid expansion into the technology industry. Appalachian State University has one of oldest, largest, and most successful Computer Science programs in the state (accredited in 1989). And our community colleges have a proven track record of developing training programs to meet the needs of developing businesses. What are we missing? A leader to make it happen. I have an idea… Let’s send a computer scientist and businessman to Raleigh and start our prosperous future today!

Ray’s Action Plan
  1. Empower state agencies and local governments to:
    • Grow existing businesses.
    • Support our entrepreneurs to develop new businesses.
    • Recruit new industry
  2. Change the mindset in Raleigh to invest in rural economies instead of just pumping our tax dollars into the big cities.
  3. Be a Representative who knows the region, who knows how to run a business, and has the energy and innovation to promote Ashe and Watauga Counties.
  4. Make sure we have the infrastructure (education, medical care, roads, power, broadband internet, clean air and water, etc.) that supports an expanding economy into the next decade.
  5. Instead of just paying “lip service” to trade skill education, let’s invest in our skilled labor force and give our children the opportunity to secure jobs that pay well and provide incentive to stay and raise families in the High Country.
  6. Seek new cooperation with our municipalities, counties, and the state to open new doors for economic development.
  7. Bring state resources (our tax dollars) back to the High Country to expand and develop the tourism industry.
  8. Reverse the cuts that have been made to NC’s Agriculture Extension services and support our farmers in the midst of a changing economy and climate.

Our region has what it takes to be an economic powerhouse in the Southeast—a light shining from the mountains. I pledge to be a dedicated advocate for the people of Ashe and Watauga Counties.  Prosperity and stability are on the horizon if we seize the missed opportunities and fill the leadership void of the last eight years.  My economic forecast is “A bright future for Ashe and Watauga Counties!”