Local economic development efforts
Are they worth the cost?
This reporter recently conducted an interview with Joe Winslow, chairman of the Pasquotank County Commission. Among various issues discussed, was the matter of Economic Development.
I asked if he could name a single job that had originated in the county through the efforts of Wayne Harris, director of the county’s economic development efforts.
There was much conversation and numerous reasons why Mr. Harris had not been successful to date. But there was no mention of what might be done to derive a different result.
The interview took place at the Courthouse and Rodney Bunch, the county manager, attended at the request of Chairman Winslow. He suggested that Bunch would be available to answer any questions in case we asked something that he (Winslow) did not know directly. In the course of the interview, Mr. Bunch spoke up in order to add clarification to the answers provided by the chairman.
Bunch said that Director Harris had been to numerous conferences where ‘Avionics people’ are located because this is the ‘Big Draw’ for our area right now. In most of these instances, Harris piggybacks with other firms that have booths in order to keep costs down. According to Bunch, in the last few years, he has had more prospects coming to town and looking around than has been the case previously. He hasn’t closed any deals just yet, but has been busier recently than before.
We asked why each county has its own business development effort when we are all under the same umbrella? The Chairman stated that consolidation has been tried before but each county wanted to have its own person representing their interests. Each county has its own industrial park and each has different strengths and weaknesses that a local developer will work around in order to attract business prospects for their county.
Winslow seems to places a lot of credence on the proposed designation of Hwy 17 as an interstate in terms of luring businesses into Pasquotank County. Whether or not an increase in the speed limit will make a difference is hard to understand since there are traffic tie up points between the North Carolina line and the four-lane Hwy 64 West at Williamston. He also believes that infrastructure investments in roads, schools, high-speed Internet and water abundance are the building blocks that will attract business to come here or expand here.
From our perspective, there are five people working on Business Development in this area, and none of them are realizing any measurable results.
Winslow and Bunch (the county manager) believe that aviation is the big draw for our area. Certainly the aviation school in Currituck County is an important factor in that equation. Further, our county has an aviation park in connection with the Coast Guard Base and that is important as well. But seeking aviation-related businesses, like a company known as DRS, to locate here does not come along very often.
Both of these men expressed their views about the local economy being tied to Hampton Roads. We agree with that assessment. But we are doing nothing to attract those businesses to our area in terms of advertising, attending trade association meetings or other initiatives in order to attract new or expanding businesses. We seem to be waiting for the phone to ring, but not doing anything to cause the phone to ring. In the meantime, we continue to use taxpayer funds to pay our share of the costs in conjunction with the town of Elizabeth City for labor, employee benefits and related items – again, with no measurable benefit.
We have no doubt that Harris works diligently every day to attempt to attract businesses. But he has been at this for several years! When asked to identify just one job that resulted from these efforts, neither Chairman Winslow nor Manager Bunch could do so.
So why is this so important? Here are some statistics to consider:
Retail sales have declined $200,000,000 annually since 2005. The resultant loss of sales tax proceeds inhibits the county’s ability to provide funding for departments that seek it.
So while population declines and revenue sources decline as well, there is Hope that our economic prospects will improve. However, Hope is not a Strategy.
We interviewed the Chairman on Wednesday, June 3. It may have been a mere coincidence that the article about Mr. Harris and his department was printed in the local daily newspaper one week later! We have no doubt that Harris is a very dedicated man who works hard to bring business and jobs to this area. But after several years of effort, we see no benefit to date. Plus we think that he should focus on Hampton Roads not pursue the aviation industry.
A few years ago, we went to a Commission meeting with a neighbor who has some experience with the aviation business. At that meeting, Harris addressed the County Commissioners about the future of economic development for our area. When he concluded his report, Harris departed and my friend chased him down in the hallway to ask about his efforts. He asked him if he was advertising in a few publications that he named, which are particular to the aviation industry. Harris said no.
We would like to think that there is reason to be optimistic that economic development in this area will occur. If it does not, the local economy will face a crossroads between decreasing revenue and increasing costs.
What is perfectly clear is that costs reductions are not in the cards for the Pasquotank County budget any time soon.