If Asheville can do it, why can’t we?

Play your cards well: Asheville Grown Business Alliance employees (from left) Emma Hutchens, Franzi Charen and Michele Bryan hope to "foster a more in-depth conversation" about what it means to be local. Photo by Carrie Eidson

Small Business Trends, a website for small businesses and entrepreneurs, just named Asheville, N.C., one of the seven best cities in the country to launch a startup.

This comes after Forbes magazine named Asheville the 12th best metro in the country for business and careers.


Well, we’re not there yet.

But if you want to know why Quint Studer has invested $1 million to seed the University of West Florida’s Center for Entrepreneurship, it’s because he hopes Pensacola will someday be known as a startup hub, too.

And if you want to know why the Studer Community Institute sponsored EntreCon, it’s because we see Pensacola also evolving into a magnet for entrepreneurs and small businesses like Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Co., two other cities that Small Business Trends highlighted.

Asheville mapI spent seven years in Asheville before moving back home to Pensacola two years ago.

Asheville stands out for a number of reasons. It’s the home of the Biltmore House and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and borders the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, three of the top tourist destinations in the country. For five years in a row it was named the Beer City USA. And maybe because of all that beer Asheville also was named the Happiest City in America.

But when I first arrived in Asheville, the thing that stood out to me was the number of small businesses, boutiques and independent restaurants that filled downtown. The next thing I noticed was how passionate people were about buying local and supporting all those small businesses.

Everywhere you went, everywhere you shopped, you ran into people wearing T-shirts with a giant red heart that read, “Love Asheville — Go Local.” You saw people with their Go Local T-shirts serving drinks and waiting tables and ringing up cash registers. The campaign was the brainstorm of Franzi Charen, a local shop owner who founded the Asheville Grown Business Alliance in 2009.

The brainstorm worked. People in Asheville take great pride in supporting local businesses. And if you visit Asheville anytime soon, it won’t take you long to see that.

The Asheville metro, with 425,000 people, is smaller than Pensacola metro of 461,000 people. But there are almost 10,000 businesses in Asheville compared with Pensacola’s 7,400. Phyllis Pooley with UWF’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement, pulled these numbers from the 2012 County Business Patterns and Economic Census, the most recent data that’s available.

In both metros, most of these firms are small businesses. In Asheville there are 8,300 businesses with 20 or fewer employees; in Pensacola there are 5,900. But here’s the most telling stat: the annual payroll in Asheville is $5.1 billion compared with Pensacola’s $4.3 billion.

Would I like to see Pensacola with an annual payroll and a small-business culture like Asheville? You bet.

And that’s why a key focus of the Institute, the Greater Pensacola Entrepreneur Fund and UWF’s Center for Entrepreneurship is to help spawn the kind of people and thinking that hopefully will someday land Pensacola on one of those lists as the best city to start and grow a business.