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Western North Carolina is the region of the North Carolina that includes the Appalachian Mountains. Located east of the Tennessee state line, Western North Carolina contains few major metropolitan areas. Asheville, North Carolina is the westernmost major city, while Charlotte, the largest city in North Carolina and the seat of Mecklenburg County, is in southwestern North Carolina. Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville are the three towns in Mecklenburg county, north of Charlotte, which serve as suburbs for the city.
The Charlotte Metropolitan Area is well-known for its auto racing history. The city of Concord, 20 miles northeast of Charlotte, is home to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Mooresville, 20 miles north of Charlotte, is best known for NASCAR racing teams, which have earned Charlotte’s nickname, “Race City USA.” Kannapolis, NC, 20 miles northeast of Charlotte on Interstate 85, is the hometown of the well-known Earnhardt racing family.
Western North Carolina’s industrial base was focused on textiles and wood products during the 1900s. In Kannapolis, the closure of Pillowtex Mills (formerly Cannon Mills and Fieldcrest-Cannon Corporation) in 2003 signaled a state-wide decline in the textile industry in North Carolina. At the time, the closure was the largest layoff of workers in the state’s history, with almost 5,000 workers losing their jobs, and the effects of the closure were devastating. Equally as devastating was the fact that many former Pillowtex Mills workers were at a high risk for injurious effects of exposure to asbestos fibers. Asbestos was once woven into cloth that was then used to make protective clothing for the many race car drivers living in Western North Carolina, to protect against heat and flames.
Textile workers in Western North Carolina, whose job it was to weave asbestos fibers into cloth, may find that decades after they were exposed to asbestos they are at a higher risk for developing mesothelioma cancer. Many towns such as Albemarle, NC, were home to several textile mills. Albemarle’s Efird Manufacturing Co. opened its first mill in 1896. America & Efird became one of the world’s largest manufacturers and distributors of sewing thread for industrial and consumer markets after the completion of the merger between American Yarn Processing and Efird Manufacturing in 1952. Albemarle also boasted the Wiscasset Mill Company, the Cannon Mill Company, and the Lillian Knitting Mill, among others.
Western North Carolina is rich in history. Cities such as Salisbury in Rowan County have strong historical preservation programs. Salisbury has 10 National Register historic districts with homes and commercial buildings dating back to the 19th century and early 20th century. Salisbury also has older industrial areas, primarily manufacturing buildings and sites, on either side of the railroad tracks north, south and west of the downtown area. Renovation of these older industrial buildings is hampered by the presence of asbestos, a challenge for the City of Salisbury as many of these buildings and sites are located within, or close to, residential areas. The most likely options for existing older industrial buildings and sites in Salisbury are adaptive reuse and, when no other option is available, demolition and redevelopment.
Western North Carolina is historically associated with furniture and cabinetry manufacturing. Thomasville, NC is especially notable for its furniture industry, as are the city’s neighbors of High Point and Lexington. Thomasville and Lexington are slowly turning into bedroom communities for nearby cities such as Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point. Lexington, NC boasts the well-known Lexington Furniture Company, which began as the Dixie Furniture Company back in 1901.
Western North Carolina still possesses manufacturing industries and continues to hold a disproportionately high percentage of national employment in these industries. For example, in Salisbury, NC, there is a labor force of over 80,000, with more than 12,000 jobs in manufacturing, according to the Greater Salisbury Development Corporation. In order to reduce employee exposure to common workplace hazards and subsequent injury in these industries, the N.C. Department of Labor launched a health hazard special emphasis program in 2006 for several chemicals that can have serious, injurious health effects, including lead, silica, asbestos and styrene.
Tourism is a major part of the economy in Western North Carolina. The region’s most prominent attractions include approximately half of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Stone Mountain State Park, several national forests and ski resorts, including Sugar Mountain. Western North Carolina boasts a number of large lakes, including the 520-acre Lake Norman, where sailing, windsurfing, and jet skiing are popular.