Western North Carolina

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A Place-Based Rural Industry Focus

Western North Carolina, also known as the Mountain Region, is the rural part of the state that includes the Appalachian Mountains. Its main population center, Asheville, has a population of 83,393. The geography of North Carolina reinforces strong regional patterns of identity and culture, economic development, and industry concentrations. Western North Carolina is home to a large number of immigrants of Mayan descent, many of whom work in the poultry, furniture, and textile industries. The textile industry has historically been a critical part of the region’s economy, and offshoring has resulted in a massive loss of textile jobs since the 1980s.

 

Recent interest in reviving the textile industry is driving new efforts in cooperative development. One highly innovative and fast-growing worker-owned textile factory co-founded, and plays a leading role in, the Carolina Textile District, a collaboration of businesses along the textile industry value chain. Overall, Western North Carolina has only four worker cooperatives, but value-chain organizing within the heritage industries (especially textiles, hosiery, and furniture-making) could spur more strategic co-op development as part of broader economic revitalization. As in many rural areas, the only prospective buyers for businesses whose owners are retiring may be local, increasing potential for conversions to cooperative ownership.

Ecosystem Analysis

This Cooperative Growth Ecosystem has key Essential, Important, and Environmental Elements along the value chain of one key heritage industry (textiles), providing an inspiring example for other industries and regions around the state and the country. Worker co-ops and developers are just beginning to expand this ecosystem to other local industries.

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Strong Elements in This Ecosystem

– Technical Assistance made available through a young co-op development center
– Supportive Attitudes and Culture, including a tradition of self-help in the region and widespread interest in worker co-ops in Asheville
– Strong Business Supports in the textile industry

Opportunities to Build and Leverage Strengths in This Ecosystem

– Increase number and capacity of Co-op Developers that can focus on startups and conversions of existing businesses, possibly by leveraging Cooperative Education at entrepreneurship programs and local colleges
– Build off success in the textile industry to develop Connection to Market strategies in other industries
– Develop Advocacy Partnerships to explore and potentially advocate for Policy to incentivize worker co-op development

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Food for Thought

One key opportunity for scale in this ecosystem is to shore up and expand the pioneering textile industry–specific efforts for further job creation, especially through conversions of existing businesses to worker co-ops. What would it take for conversions of existing textile manufacturing enterprises to go to scale as a strategy for saving and improving manufacturing jobs in the region? To replicate such an effort in other heritage industries? Is policy important at this juncture or would a pure technical assistance–focused industry/value-chain strategy be most productive? How can the supportive community in the region’s largest city, Asheville, be leveraged to strengthen support for co-ops via existing entrepreneurial and small business programs?