Realtor Roundtable 2

With thousands of offices in 105 countries, RE/MAX is undeniably a global brand. But in Asheville, and America, they’re local; some 20-25% of American house sales are done through RE/MAX agents.

We sat down with Hadi Atri, President & CEO, and Kourosh Sharifi, CFO, of RE/MAX Executive, and Kit Cramer, President & CEO of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, to discuss Asheville’s real estate, economy and future.

Kit Cramer: The city is an interesting environment for housing. We have a dearth of workforce housing in this community… I delineate workforce over affordable because I’m with the Chamber, we care about making sure we’ve got enough workforce in the area… We have a ten county labor shed here—so people are coming from ten counties into Asheville every day. Our population increases by almost half every day, so a lot of that traffic, that’s people who are working. People have a tendency to want to blame it on tourism, and a lot of people are coming in to work because there’s no formal transit system between here and some of those outlying communities.

Hadi Atri: From the short period of time I’ve been involved in Asheville and the little research I’ve done, basically Asheville for the retirees used to be great, now they can’t afford it. Now they’re going outside of Asheville—our Waynesville office is very busy because for a 30 minute drive, it’s $300,000 cheaper, and you can park your car.

Kourosh Sharifi: The economy is kind of complex to understand. Looking at this market, at the average price point in this market and the existing jobs, sometimes you wonder how people can afford to buy the real estate here. An average of $450,000 to half a million dollars, but then you look at the average wage here and it’s not supporting it. I think still there’re a lot of people that’re retiring, that are moving from other states here and they’ve got cash and real estate is probably more valuable… [Asheville’s] a very close community, and it’s based on small businesses… For small businesses, the accessibility to the funds and getting loans to start a business is very limited… What’s the source of funding, what’s the city doing?

Cramer: On the economic development side, we’re working on trying to grow jobs and capital investment to build the tax base… We’ve got investors, a lot of retirees, some very skilled people… we see that as another asset that we can try and tap to support small businesses…

There’s an economic strategy called the AVL 5×5 and it focuses on five different areas—so advanced manufacturing, as an example of that we recruited GE Aviation… We’re very glad they located here—they pay a great wage, they’re a wonderful company that cares about their workers, and they said they largely chose this area because of the workforce, the quality of the workforce, their ability to work together. So we’re working on companies like that all the time.

But you’re absolutely right, we have to continue to create jobs that are higher wages. We heard that in our last assessment from our investors, they said “push for a higher average wage.” So we’re recruiting, aiming at $50K as the average wage, that pushes up the average overall (it’s currently $38-39,000).

Sharifi: We know that Asheville is going to continue growing, because I think the tourism is going to keep pushing more people coming here… The area that we’re concerned about is the sense of community that we have in Asheville. Gradually over the next 10 years, everything becomes so expensive that the only people that are buying real estate are from Florida buying a condo downtown. Gradually they’re gonna be out of the city, and that’s gonna change the demographic of the city overall. That’s why I’m thinking we really need to look for high-paying jobs, not 30, not $40,000.

Cramer: We don’t. We’re constantly working on those higher wage areas, and not only in advanced manufacturing but also in healthcare, and things that are affiliated. So while we were happy to recruit New Belgium Brewing, we were equally happy to work on White Labs… What we love about that project is the average wage is much higher because it’s a scientific and technology-oriented type of job, and it’s got a crossover with tourism which is nice…. That’s exactly what we’re looking for, something that fits with the brand but it’s a higher-wage, high-knowledge type of job that is adding to the community and broadening the base.