Written by Michael Cooper, Governmental Affairs Director for the Near West Region of North Carolina, which includes the McDowell County Board of REALTORS®
In 2020, I took a job with the North Carolina Association of REALTORS® as a regional government affairs director in western North Carolina. I was living in Raleigh, but early in the pandemic I started to miss the qualities of life in our foothills and mountains: the space, the privacy, the scenery, the small-town charm. I wasn’t the only one.
Before COVID, the greatest issue in North Carolina was a rural-urban divide as jobs and industries concentrated in cities and rural areas lost population. Now that’s changing. The housing market in western NC is booming because families are spreading out and more Americans have the option of working from home. That’s why I’m thrilled to be working as a GAD in this moment. After taking the job with NC REALTORS® I became familiar with NAR’s Housing Opportunity, Placemaking and Smart Growth grants and instantly became a fan. My part of North Carolina was built on agriculture, furniture manufacturing and textiles. But those industries employ fewer people now and economic development is now more about placemaking.
My region includes the Town of Boone, which is home to Appalachian State University, and not far away is the City of Asheville. But more common are places like Mt. Airy, a town which is the birthplace of Andy Griffith and the inspiration for Mayberry from his show. There are many communities like that in western North Carolina (Newland, Sparta, West Jefferson, Rutherfordton, and Spruce Pine) that are undergoing a transition and adapting to creating jobs also based on tourism and outdoor recreation. Quality of life now is key. So is walkability, culture, entertainment, downtown shopping, mixed use properties, and a strong sense of place.
That’s why I got excited about the grant opportunities available through NAR. I researched those opportunities and pitched associations in my region on pursuing these grants to support smart growth principles in their communities. That led to three of my associations applying for and receiving Smart Growth Level 2 Grants, the first of which was for the McDowell County Board of REALTORS®.
We partnered with the Marion Business Association and their Executive Director Freddie Killough to bring the grant to the City of Marion. And we were connected with Hilary Greenberg, President of Greenberg Development Services, who was available to do a Main Street Development Assessment for the community. It was perfect timing and a perfect fit.
The City of Marion is well-positioned for this moment. It’s within a 30-minute drive of Asheville, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Linville Falls, and the tallest mountain on the East Coast, Mt. Mitchell. There’s also a gorgeous lake nearby, Lake James. Tourists come to the area every day for hiking, camping, and fishing, and with the rise of telework, more people will want to stay in the area full-time.
So it made sense for the McDowell Board of REALTORS® to use available resources to support a study of ways to grow and boost Marion’s downtown. Hilary Greenberg visited Marion in August to conduct the assessment. That included lunch the county manager, a walking tour, business visits, dinner with the Marion Business Association, a breakfast workshop with community leaders including REALTORS®, interviews with stakeholders, and a lunch with economic development officials. Hilary’s report is now being finalized. But we do anticipate using a NAR Placemaking grant to implement one of the recommendations in the report.
As the website of the Marion Business Association (MBA) states: “With global economic changes, now more than ever before, a strong representation for rural communities is essential. Downtowns remain the heartbeat of a community. The MBA is seeing a renewed interest in the downtown with a variety of new businesses, including a meadery, tap room, breweries, entertainment venue, and a general store.” And the McDowell Board of REALTORS® couldn’t have been prouder to partner with MBA to secure the grant, and to host Hilary and a special visit from Holly Moskerintz and Christine Windle from NAR.
Marion, North Carolina is a quaint little city in the foothills of North Carolina. The quality of life and the cost of living will make this an attractive place now that more people can live and work from anywhere. But that’s not a guarantee of attracting new residents, new jobs and new investment. We still have to do the work. We need to study our assets, highlight the best of what we have to offer, and sell a vision of a renewed and prosperous future for the community, and NAR’s Smart Growth Grant is helping Marion do that.
Other associations in my region are now following their lead.