Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. CEO Doug Johnson focused on development, growth and jobs during his speech at the Ashe County luncheon announcing the 2014 Small Business of the Year on Tuesday, March 18 at the West Jefferson United Methodist Church.
Johnson opened his remarks, to the full crowd at Hensley Hall, with memories of growing up in Ashe County, attending West Jefferson Elementary School and being baptized at the First Baptist Church. Then, he transitioned from his fond memories to the harder realities of today’s Ashe County.
“What a great group of people live in Ashe County, and what great opportunities lie before us,” Johnson said. “We’ve been going through tough times.
Johnson said between 2000 and 2010, the county’s population grew by 11 percent, but since the turn of the decade, that population has declined by 0.7 percent.
“Have we recovered? What do you think our growth rate is today in Ashe County, does anybody know,” he asked. “Minus point 7 percent. We’re losing population.”
Johnson said the county government, the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce and other community leaders have to work together to fix the problem of a declining population.
“I have been really sad the past year or two, because when I’ve come up here […] I have family and friends,” he said. “There’s been some stinking thinking, I’ve heard. Things aren’t going good up here.”
Johnson emphasized many of the positives taking place throughout the County, including the changes in downtown West Jefferson and the developments taking place in Lansing. Still, he focused on the leaders of the county and the changes he expects them to work on.
“Leaders, one of the things I want to ask you to do, is stop the stinking thinking with our citizens,” he said. “Things are getting better. Ashe County is a great place to live, a good place to be, a great place to be.”
For leaders, Johnson said they needed to have a focus on the future “vision of Ashe County.”
While asking what the future of the county was going to be, he emphasized that the changes required to bring in more industry and tourism will have to be done one step at a time.
“What’s (the county) going to look like here? What’s our dream?,” he said. “Then once we know what our dream is, how do we get there?”
Ashe County, according to Johnson, needs a strategic plan — something he called on the county leaders and businesses to do.
“We need to think about working together as a community, not just government, but including government, small businesses, chamber, all of us here who call Ashe County home,” he said. “We need to put some resources into getting the word out, to tell people about the attributes we know are here.”
Johnson encouraged citizens to focus on the great things that exist in Ashe County, including small businesses, the state parks and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
After focusing on tourism, Johnson then turned to jobs in the manufacturing sector. Johnson mentioned that BREMCO’s main hubs in their service region are in Ashe and Caldwell counties.
Johnson mentioned Gates’ soon departure, saying “that’s our third biggest customer at Blue Ridge Electric, so it’s tough.” In turn, he mentioned General Electric Aviation’s expansion in the county.
While focusing on GE’s expansion, Johnson emphasized the county should focus on ways to bring companies into the county through incentives and promoting an American workforce.
“We need to keep this manufacturing core taken care of,” he said.
In addition, a focus was placed on education throughout Ashe County, in particular on Wilkes Community College’s Ashe Campus, According to Johnson, many CEOs look for the availability of a community college when deciding where to bring new jobs and industry.
“We want a bigger flag flying in Ashe County with the community college name on it,” Johnson said. “It’s all about education, (its) very important.”
Later in the speech, Johnson said “Wilkes is the key to training these workers for GE.”
Wil Petty can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @WilPetty.