ASHEVILLE — Keeping up the momentum of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council (BREC) in 2004 after the group’s successful first year will be a task that Executive Director Jim Roberts looks forward to tackling.

“Optimistic is an understatement,” Roberts says of the outlook for the new year. “Yes, I see the challenge of helping to create the balance of a great authentic place to live in Asheville and western N.C. with a place of multiple career opportunities.”

Roberts says the fact is that if you tell people in the Southeast that you live in Asheville, they always say, “I would love to live in Asheville if I could find a career opportunity.”

With the efforts of groups like BREC, that attitude is changing, even as the layoffs continue. In the past 10 days, more than 1,100 people in western N.C. found out they would lose their jobs when three different plants announced plans to close.

“We are finding the entrepreneurs today that will create the opportunities for the people that want truly want to live in Asheville and western North Carolina,” Roberts notes.

He says his favorite story is about a young man from Tryon, south of Asheville near the S.C. border, who approached him at conference hosted by BREC in September.

“He came up to me and said he was a student at Dartmouth — and for the first time at the conference had the thought that he was going to be able to come back to western North Carolina and have a meaningful career,” recalls Roberts. “That was a proud moment for me.”

The ‘knowledge economy’ and the 4 T’s

BREC has big plans for the new year under the guidance of Roberts, who says the group is working on additions to the business and technology infrastructure for companies in what is known as the “knowledge economy.”

This concept comes from Richard Florida’s book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” which promotes the theory that economic regions have to retain, attract, engage and empower the most creative and talented people to create jobs in the knowledge-based economy. Florida, a professor of regional economics at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of the Brookings Institute, concentrates on the 4 T’s of a region: Technology, Talent, Tolerance and Territorial assets.

“Richard Florida is the hottest economic developer consultant in the world,” says Roberts, who recently attracted the world premiere of Giuli Dummit’s documentary film based on Florida’s book to Asheville. “His theories of the creative class work well in Asheville. Asheville has plenty of the talent, tolerance and territorial assets.”

But as far as the first T, technology, the city and whole mountain region still have its work cut out, and BREC is taking the lead.

Getting started in 2003

The Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council began last year as an initiative of AdvantageWest North Carolina, the economic development group for the western part of the state. Throughout 2003, BREC held a number of programs and events, including the start of an angel investor network, several well-known keynote speakers for monthly meetings, “Speed Dating for Business” to help improve local networking skills, a new relationship with Oak Ridge National Labs to improve technology transfer and the inaugural venture capital and entrepreneurship conference for western N.C.

The Blue Ridge Angel Investor Network (BRAIN) held its first meeting on March 18 with experienced investors talking to over 90 regional high net worth individuals about private equity investing. Three chosen and coached entrepreneurs presented their business plans to potential investors, and one of the companies has since raised over $500,000 from follow up meetings with BRAIN as part of a $2 million round.

“We have a few companies that have begun to present to the statewide angel funds that exist and that helps to open doors to the bigger funds,” Roberts says of venture funding in western N.C. “BUILDERadius was the first company from Asheville to ever present at a CED conference,” he notes, referring to the online building permit firm that was invited to InfoTech 2002 in Research Triangle Park.

In July, BREC hosted a keynote speech and a follow up VIP Tech Summit with Matthew Szulik, CEO of Red Hat in Raleigh. Szulik spoke to 125 attendees about the passion required to be an entrepreneur, the challenges from overseas and what North Carolina could do to be even more competitive in the technology industry. In the private VIP Tech Summit, 30 western N.C. tech leaders told Szulik of the progress being made in the business infrastructure to help grow the local technology industry.

BREC partnered with the Appalachian Regional Commission in September to host the inaugural Building Entrepreneurial Communities/Carolina Connect Venture Capital and Entrepreneurship Conference. Over 360 people attended and over $1 billion in private equity capital was represented by investors from Atlanta, Raleigh and Charlotte.

“So many great positives have come out of that event,” Roberts notes, “including investments and jobs created.”

Making it happen in 2004

Roberts and BREC hope to ride the momentum of the group from 2003 into the new year. Goals have been set high and much is on tap.

For starters, BREC will grow physically, expanding to hold meetings in the cities of Boone and Cullowhee, home to Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University, respectively. The group will also broaden the scope of its web site, which will become more functional to keep potential members informed.

The most recent BREC event, held on Jan. 27, was called “Starting with the End in Mind” and helped educate entrepreneurs on exit strategies. About 60 attendees heard from Nick Kottyan, founder of Peak 10 and an active angel investor, Sweetwater Capital’s Scott Sonone and Bob Dunn of Enterprise Solutions International. The next BREC meeting is slated for Feb. 17 in Asheville, and an upcoming event in April will feature the chief technology officer from Qualcomm.

March will bring another gathering of BRAIN, which will begin to raise a $5 million angel investment fund in 2004. It hopes to involve wealthy retirees in the area.

“We have many high net worth individuals who are retiring to Asheville,” Roberts says, “we just need to educate them on why they should become angel investors such as return on investment and creating jobs to keep their children and grandchildren in the region.”

The second Carolina Connect conference in Asheville will continue to raise the business profile of the region with the assistance of new BREC board members. The group will also start a new young adult retention program to be called BALANCE (Business, Art, Lifestyle, Authenticity, Nature, Culture and Economy).

Overall, BREC in 2004 will be focused on helping entrepreneurs grow revenues, attract additional investors and earn grant money through regional partnerships. These three concepts are the focus of the group in the new year.

“Job creation boils down to cash,” Roberts says bluntly. “You can not hire new employees without cash.”

BREC: www.ncmtns.biz

AdvantageWest N.C.: www.awnc.org