County Incentives Attempt Restoring Livelihoods - TribPapers

County Incentives Attempt Restoring Livelihoods

Photo by John Salvino.

Asheville – Buncombe County leadership was excited to announce another award of economic development incentives. This time, the winner was East Fork Pottery. Alex Matisse (Henri’s great-grandson) launched the business in 2009 in a run-down Madison County tobacco barn. He joined forces with three like-minded individuals who eventually moved the business to Asheville and now employ 100. Now, with a factory in Asheville and stores in Asheville and Atlanta, they’re still best known for their heavy-duty, all-purpose ceramic bowls, even though they’ve become a full-service kitchenware business. They even sell groceries with a twist, like violet cocktail syrup.

East Fork now wishes to expand, filling in the standard blanks for the economic development incentive announcement as follows: $2.38 million, 50, and $22.46 per hour. The commissioners approved awarding the company $40,000, contingent upon reaching these targets. The amount matches the $300,000 Building Reuse Grant the Rural Division of the North Carolina Department of Commerce has approved for the project. 

Under the program, the state will fund up to half the costs for the renovation of vacant buildings, renovation or expansion of facilities used by North Carolina businesses or “the renovation, expansion or construction of healthcare entities;” provided the development is undertaken to spur economic activity. The county’s Economic Development and Governmental Relations Director Tim Love explained the county just became eligible for these grants because COVID-19 shutdowns devastated local incomes enough to downgrade Buncombe to a Tier 2 economic rating.

Other reasons to award the business incentives include its commitment to things that the commissioners’ value in commerce. Examples include the fact that it is a benefit corporation (B Corp), or a company whose legal obligations are not merely to turn a profit but to serve society, labor, and the environment as well. To illustrate, East Fork is certified CarbonNeutral, and it held raffles to raise $381,000 for nonprofits during the COVID-19 shutdowns. 

Employees are paid living wages starting at $20 per hour. Aligned with the corporate emphasis on inclusivity, job applicants need not submit resumes, so many are “justice-involved individuals.” Matisse explained from the outside Asheville looks like a bastion of “liberal happiness,” but when one looks deeper, one finds the BIPOC population, which his company is trying to empower. $25,000 of the county’s grant is subject to East Fork’s hiring of persons from groups identified in its economic development policy. That is, if the company doesn’t keep individuals traditionally stigmatized as hard-to-hire on the payroll for three years, they won’t get the county cash.

Two spoke during public comment. The YMI Cultural Center’s Director of Economic and Workforce Development Philip Cooper told how he helps the hard-to-hire with job placement. To address the achievement gap, East Fork hired three graduates of Asheville High who didn’t go to college, only one of whom proved, “not job-ready.” 

Cooper further said he was surprised when Love mentioned the county’s policy only calling for the hiring of low-level offenders because East Fork has hired violent offenders, who he described as having served their time and now needing to provide for their families. Cooper added it is easy for white men to get jobs when they get out of prison, but almost impossible for Black men.

The chamber of commerce’s Director of Business Recruitment and Economic Development April Brown repeated what Love had said about having been, for the last three years, in conversations with East Fork about equitable hiring practices. She said the company, “has dedicated staff, 100% focused on equitable hiring, building relationships in the community, building a partnership model that calls into question every layer in the system.”

The unassuming East Fork Pottery factory will be undergoing renovation and expansion, with a lot of the work taking place inside the people it hires. Photo submitted.

In Other Matters –

The commissioners approved what will be known as the Homeowner’s Grant program. Last month, they were presented with a proposal that they sent back for refinement with public input. At first, staff had suggested setting aside $300,000 for grants of up to $1,000 to help cover tax increases affecting destitute homeowners. These grants would only be available to primary residences owned for at least one year by persons means-verified to be earning up to 80 percent of AMI. 

Members of the public suggested, among other things, that the awards not be disbursed on a first-come, first-serve basis but that the county deploy “culturally-competent outreach,” or even that enrollment be automatic. It was also suggested that a person would have to live in their home for at least 25 years, or that an heir’s family’s years of residence should count toward ownership requirements. Other requests were that the awards be made only in areas impacted by urban renewal or Opportunity Zones and that they are equal to 30 percent of the total tax bill.

The input didn’t seem to weave into the staff’s revised product. The second iteration proposed a cap of $250, expanded the applicability to housing costs as well as the tax bill, and increased the minimum duration of residency to five years. Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, considering that the average increase in property taxes was in the range of $200-$300, suggested raising the cap to $300. Commissioner Robert Pressley, in the minority, would have preferred to keep the cap lower so more, and more low-income, people could benefit. The number of persons needing assistance was not yet available.

The City of Asheville is contributing $150,000 to the program with grants capped at $200. The city and county grants cannot be combined with overlapping forms.

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