Jackson County, North Carolina, contains or borders 45 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway — a region the local government describes as “a place of lofty peaks, rushing water and spectacular scenery.” But the Appalachian Mountains aren’t the only thing this region has going for it. Tucked away amid the natural beauty is an academic center that aspires to conduct and apply academic research so that its local community can flourish.
The Center for the Study of Free Enterprise (CSFE) at Western Carolina University (WCU) was established in 2015 in WCU’s College of Business. The mission of CSFE is to conduct research on the role of free enterprise in economic development, and disseminate that knowledge throughout the local region (and communities beyond). CSFE advances this mission through scholarly inquiry, policy analysis, educational activities, and community outreach.
Many academic centers across the country study free enterprise, but few do so in a rural Appalachian context. Jackson County has a 19.4% poverty rate, with a median household income lower than the national average. Just over 50% of the total working population is currently in the labor force.
“Unique” is a word that CSFE founding director Dr. Edward Lopez frequently uses to describe the center’s work. The center’s trademark is “how we integrate our ideas into the community,” says Lopez, who serves as a WCU professor of economics and BB&T distinguished professor of capitalism. “We help our scholars distill their work for the general public. To do that, we can translate their research into podcasts, op-eds, and presentations at events held for the public.”
A recent example of this strategy in action was an opioid and addiction awareness campaign the center created in 2019 to address the addiction epidemic ravaging its community. In 2015 overdose mortality rates for adults aged 25-44 in Appalachia were more than 70 percent higher than the rest of the country. The center explored the crisis from multiple angles, publishing papers on the science of drug addiction, ways to help veterans facing addiction, and how the crisis impacts the criminal–justice system.
In addition to these efforts, CSFE distilled its ideas into op-eds placed in local newspapers. “We were able to package these ideas in mass communications,” Lopez explains. The center also convened a town hall that brought together faculty members, community members, elected officials, and media moderators for discussion. CSFE collaborated with the Jackson County Community Foundation in this effort.
“Economic well-being is inextricably linked with overall well-being, both individually and at the community level,” Lopez explains. “Where there is economic hardship, you see substance-use problems, criminal–justice problems, mental–health and suicide issues.”
When the COVID-19 epidemic came to western North Carolina in March 2020, the center created a research initiative to craft evidence-based model policy options, develop a COVID-19 impact analysis, and identify workable community-based solutions for recovery. “We realized that we had some core competencies that could be used to better understand what’s happening,” Lopez says. The center is now exploring how people and societies grow and transform after a traumatic event. “Addressing these mental–health issues is just as important as the more economically oriented question of keeping people in jobs and helping them avoid economic hardships.”
CSFE also hosts a speaker series open to the public, research conferences, reading groups, and four undergraduate student fellowships each year.
“We want to continue shining a light on things that we know create economic prosperity,” Lopez says. “It’s things like starting a business, making a personal investment in going to college, or taking some courses to get a certificate. Maybe it’s switching to a new career, moving for a job, or investing in your friend’s business idea. Those forces promote growth. Innovations come from there.”
With the help of this dedicated team in the heart of the mountains, that message of recovery, growth, and transformation rings out loud and clear.
The Charles Koch Foundation partners with social entrepreneurs to drive societal progress through academic research and innovations that help all learners realize their potential. Read more about the Foundation’s support for economic opportunity.