Madison County – Tahoe with a Bit of Berkeley? Not your Typical Rural Community
A couple of weeks ago, I got the opportunity to visit Madison County, North Carolina with our partner Tom Mirc, Principal, KeyOak Advisors as part of an USDA rural economic development grant to look at the potential of bringing Technology and BPO services to the region. I have written before that I am continuously surprised when visiting rural areas in terms of how different they are from typical rural stereotypes and how varied they are from each other. What is most surprising about Madison county is that there is nothing typical about it as a rural community. First the landscape is gorgeous-there are mountains everywhere, and the greenery reminded this California girl of Lake Tahoe. Second, Madison County has a very artsy, trendy (and a bit hippy) vibe to it stemming from being so close to Asheville. Asheville is the anchor city for the MDA and about a 20-30 minute drive to most areas of Madison County. For those of you who are not familiar with the city, Asheville is becoming a very popular due to the art, trendy restaurants, multiple breweries, gorgeous landscape, and more. Asheville was even coined the “Paris of the South” by Huffington Post.
Madison has benefited from the growth of Asheville. With the rising popularity of the city, Asheville has become more expensive. As a result, people have pushed further out into the surrounding areas like Madison. For example, many artists are moving into Madison County. A large building in Marshall on Blannahassett Island, was recently renovated into artist studios that have been completely occupied.
While Madison County is a great place to live is there potential for it to be a technology services hub?
My initial impression is a definite yes. The biggest strength for the county is the ability to attract workforce to the region. Unlike many other rural communities – the area caters to today’s active young adults. Residents have great outdoor recreation such as skiing and river rafting, an organic farming community, and the city of Asheville close by. While we were there, we heard over and over again that Madison County would have no problem attracting people (senior and youth) to the area if there were jobs. We also heard many stories of people who moved to the area because they had the ability to work from their homes.
In terms of technical talent, the region produces roughly 130 technical graduates a year. One place we spoke to during our trip was AB Tech in Asheville which offers 2 year technical degrees. I was very impressed with the school’s administration in terms of their ability to quickly adapt to changing technology market requirements and how they were able to put together customized programs for businesses in very technical areas such as gear manufacturing and composite training in a matter of weeks. An interesting fact about the school is that in 2010, a group of AB Tech computer programmers won second place in a national web programming contest, beating out schools like MIT, and finishing just behind Stanford.
Students from AB Tech continuously get the opportunity to work with local technology and manufacturing companies in the Madison county area which creates great opportunities for both the students and companies. Schools like AB Tech are vital in creating successful economies in rural areas like Madison County. Madison County is also home to Mars Hill which is in a wonderful college town which annually produces roughly 30 computer science graduates and 400 overall.
If We Build It, They Will Come.
The largest hurdle Madison County will have in attracting businesses is finding available commercial space. Although there is a lot of small retail and charming old properties, (I have my eye on a church for sale that would make a wonderful office for my company!) the Class B office space that could house 100-200 people is non-existent. New companies coming in would most likely have to build their office space. This is usually not an option for most service firms unless they are targeting offices with 500 or more employees. However, Madison County is aware of this issue and their new economic development team will be tackling this head on. We feel very strongly that if they able to increase the availability of office space, companies will come because of the attractiveness of the workforce and the area.