Twice each year, NCGrowth, a Kenan Institute-affiliated center, showcases its clients, recent projects and upcoming work in a unique place. On Dec. 13, the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro hosted the event. Attendees learned about Asheboro, Randolph County and the broader Triad economy, and recent NCGrowth projects – and got to visit with some of the zoo’s animal inhabitants.
The day began with a tour of Venture Asheboro, a for-profit business incubator that provides space and resources to enable small businesses to thrive in a small-town setting. Over coffee and waffles, founder Jonathan Thill described the successes and challenges he has faced since starting the project in March 2019. Venture Asheboro offers desks and office space, amenities like WiFi, unlimited copying and printing, and business training and mentoring at an affordable flat rate. According to Jaylin Brower, an entrepreneur growing his new fitness business, Peak Performance, from Venture Asheboro, “All the little things [at Venture Asheboro] made an enormous difference in accelerating my business growth.”
Thill reported on the success of Venture Asheboro, noting that most spaces have been filled. He also said that he was eager to solicit feedback and suggestions from the NCGrowth team. His key focus areas are attracting diverse entrepreneurs, making a compelling case for starting a business in a rural community like Asheboro, and getting the space aesthetics and services right to appeal to a millennial and Gen Z demographic.
After spending the morning at Venture Asheboro, the group headed to Asheboro’s most well-known attraction – the North Carolina Zoo. There, Kevin Franklin, president of the Randolph County Economic Development Corporation, discussed how the county is building on its history as a textile and furniture manufacturing hub, updating it for a modern economy. For instance, one local fabric manufacturer is building its competitive advantage by using hemp to make CBD oil-infused clothing.
Attendees also heard from Diane Villa, director of communications and marketing for the North Carolina Zoo. Villa described how the zoo, under new leadership since 2014, has greatly grown its attendance. In 2019, it hosted more than 900,000 visitors – a record for the park and a 9 percent increase from the previous year. The zoo will also break ground in 2020 on its next major expansion – the Asia exhibit – which it expects to open in 2024. Also on the expansion list for the world’s largest zoo by acreage are exhibits showcasing animals from Australia and the Amazon rainforest.
The zoo is a major public asset for North Carolina. All public school students in the state can visit the park free as part of school field trips, and the zoo conducts industry-leading conservation and research efforts locally, as well as internationally. Importantly, the zoo is also a major economic driver for Randolph County, employing 650 people directly and providing approximately 1,200 additional jobs, mostly through purchasing and services acquisitions.
Over lunch, showcase attendees heard presentations from current NCGrowth clients and analysts on such diverse projects as helping Your Local Greens, a Burlington-based hydroponic greens grower, scale his business; supporting affordable housing efforts for northeastern North Carolina Native American tribes; and conducting incubator feasibility studies for communities in the Carolinas. In the coming months, NCGrowth will be releasing an incubator feasibility guide that will help communities conduct such studies themselves and learn about alternative growth generators in places where incubators don’t work.
Finally, attendees got to one of the most exciting parts of the day – the zoo tour. Diane Villa took the group on the tram to see the future Asia and Australia sites. They also caught a glimpse of some of the zoo’s existing exhibits, designed to create an immersive experience that transports visitors to animals’ native habitats.
The Asheboro showcase was clearly a fun event, but attendees were also inspired by the stories of client success and the exciting economic development happening in the region – which, in the end, were the real highlights of the day.
To learn more about NCGrowth’s work, visit their website.