John “Jack” Cecil is a creative dyslexic. While it takes Jack more time to process the written language, this condition doesn’t slow him down.
The great-grandson of George W. Vanderbilt is the president and CEO of Biltmore Farms, which was one of the Southeast’s largest dairy producers and has now evolved into a community development firm.
Biltmore Farms is the developer of Biltmore Park Town Square, a mixed-use urban center of retail, office, restaurants, hospitality, and entertainment venues. As the fourth generation to run the family business, he is committed to building strong communities.
“I connect dots that most people don’t see,” Jack explains. He has a way of identifying the big picture even in the face of adversity. For example, during the Great Recession, the company stuck with its plan to construct Town Square even though many of the storefronts were not leased. Now, it’s 90 percent full.
For Biltmore Farms, the five tenets of community development of education, health care, economic development, arts & culture and environmental stewardship drive everything the company does.
“We have built a downtown but need to add more jobs,” he says. “We need the complementary employment base.”
For decades Jack has been focused on creating a western version of RTP, which would include a combination of advanced manufacturing jobs, innovative and entrepreneurial firms plus applied technology businesses. He sees Asheville’s vibrant arts and creative talents as a strong attraction for people and companies to consider the place that inspired literary giant Thomas Wolfe.
Research Triangle Park is dealing with the reverse. “The Park has a plethora of research jobs and Bob (Geolas) is creating the downtown complete with creative spaces,” he says.
Jack and RTP have a fascinating history. He recalls as a sophomore in college during the mid-70’s visiting with Archie Davis, one of the co-founders of the Park, when Mr. Davis was earning his master’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Ten years later, he had lunch with Mr. Davis in Old Salem to learn more about his vision and execution of RTP. Jack was intrigued with the linkage between the universities, the public sector and private enterprise to the success of the Park.
Seeking more information about research parks, Jack also met with retired First Union banker Cliff Cameron, who spearheaded the development of University Research Park, associated with UNC-Charlotte. The advice he gleaned from those two great North Carolinians helped the company formulate the plans to construct Town Square and the adjoining Corporate Research Campus.
But Jack knows the success of western North Carolina is connected to RTP and Raleigh. He serves on several boards including as vice-chair of the N.C. Biotechnology Center, chair of the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University, and past member of the UNC Board of Governors and the NC Economic Development Board.
George Briggs, the executive director of N.C. Arboretum, and Jack normally ride from Asheville together to attend N.C. Biotechnology Center board meetings. “He’s a great friend and mentor” and “a model of citizenship.”
He observed that Jack travels with green markers to highlight documents he’s reading because of his dyslexia. He’s always prepared and well informed.
“He’s one of those people we all want to emulate,” Mr. Brigg says. “Whenever I talk to him, Jack is always leaning toward the possible.”
During those four and half-hour trips, Mr. Briggs has observed Jack taking a call from the governor and a few minutes later chatting with his wife or advising one of their four sons on their crew races or baseball games.
“The magnitude of community service Jack carries routinely would crumple the knees of most people,” Mr. Briggs says.
Jack inherited this commitment to civic responsibility for the state from his father, George H.V. Cecil, who during his business career served on numerous university, state government and private sector boards.
“The real motivator for me is trying to grow the incomes of the people of Western North Carolina,” Jack articulates. “You do it by improving the education system, providing quality health care, and offering people the opportunity for appropriate jobs so they may raise their family. What’s happening in the Triangle, Triad and Metrolina is tantamount to promote healthy growth in Western North Carolina. So I do all I can to support that.”