North Carolina Economic Development Guide

2015

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36 N o rt h C a r o l i N a E Co N o m i C D E v E lo p m E N t G u i D E D.C., prescribe Bellyaks for rehabilitation. Children with spinal injuries use them at a Georgia camp. Bellyak Inc. is more than a dip in entrepreneurialism. It's innovative, stream- lined — only Masters, plus part-timers when needed — and technology depen- dent, not only in design but in marketing and sales, too. It cut startup costs and boosted capacity to 2,400 units a year by outsourcing manufacturing. It's not alone. An eclectic mix of outdoor-gear compa- nies headquartered in western North Carolina are following a similar trail and racking up millions in sales. Many are homegrown, and the rest have made this southern section of the Appalachian Mountains their new home. They all have owners and employees who are passionate practitioners of the pursuits they purvey. "I'm not a furniture-maker. I'm a river runner and fy fsherman," says Alan Davis, 60, whose Asheville-based Blue Ridge Chair Works LLC sells about $500,000 of its fnely crafted, ash-framed camping and expedition chairs each year, using retailers such as Seattle-based Amazon. com Inc. and Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Early textile- and furniture-makers ran their mills and factories with plentiful labor and cheap electricity generated by the state's powerful rivers. Some of the resources that outdoor-gear companies enjoy here may be unique to them, but the draw is the same. "Nationwide, the industry is seeing rapid growth because of more active lifestyles and more opportunities for outdoor recreation, but in western North Carolina, it's growing even faster," says Matt Raker, vice president of entrepre- neurship at AdvantageWest Economic Development Group. He also leads its sustainable-industry program, Advan- tageGreen. That growth is refected in the number of companies and their sales. "It's not surprising considering the outdoor recreational assets the region has." Those include more than 2 million acres of public land, more than 250 miles of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and 311 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Advantage- West's 22-county region, which stretches along the Tennessee line, also has fve federally designated scenic and wild rivers and fve national parks, including Great Smoky Mountains, which had 9.4 million visitors in 2010. Thrill-seekers soar though treetops at more than 50 mph on zip lines, the region's fastest-growing attraction. Businesses such as Nantahala Outdoor Center LLC in Bryson City, which offers biking, hiking and other activities, dot the region. In 2013, tourism supported 27,000 people and a $500 million payroll in the region, according to N.C. Depart- ment of Commerce. Tourists spent more than $2.7 billion there that year. "You're in the middle of the best proving ground in the world," chair-maker Davis says. "If you're building any sort of outdoor gear, you go out and test it in your backyard." Bellyaks are pr eamlined process. egion. EfforT

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