LEE COUNTY: State decisions could improve county's economy

Jan. 26, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

Several upcoming events and recent developments on the state level could have big economic effects on the state’s smallest county, Lee County.

There have been few developments actually within Lee County in the past several months, where leaders have been mainly working toward finalizing the merger of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce and the Lee County Economic Development Corporation.

Yet at the state level, there’s a significantly more action, much of which will be felt locally.

Earlier this month, the N.C. Department of Commerce moved forward with its push to become a public-private venture, hiring Raleigh businessman Richard Lindenmuth to lead the private side of the state’s business efforts, called the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

As the commerce department becomes increasingly privatized, at least one local business leader said, it will be a good thing for Lee County and the rest of the state.

“It holds a lot of promise,” Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce President Bob Joyce said, noting that just to the north, Virginia has a similar program which has worked out well. That organization, he said, "is a very nimble organization. They can react more quickly, they are more customer service oriented.”

Another area seeing quick reactions is that of ancillary services mobilizing for when North Carolina’s business recruitment and development efforts have less state control. Legal services will be especially in need, and one of the men reportedly at the forefront of that surge is Sanford native Dennis Wicker, a former lieutenant governor and N.C. House majority leader who now works with a large Raleigh law firm.

Just as Joyce called Virginia’s efforts nimble, Wicker reportedly told the Triangle Business Journal that he wants the same from his own firm’s efforts.

“The name of the game in economic development is how nimble and how quickly you can be of service to the client. We now have a department-wide footprint to draw from.”

That footprint he referred to was the newly formed economic development team for Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarbrough Attorneys and Counselors at Law, which he will be leading. Another Raleigh firm has formed a similar team, appointing a former Wake County Economic Development director to compete with Wicker and his team.

Joyce said that kind of early action is exactly why privatization is good.

"Here’s two big law firms making big strides to get in this business,” he said. “That’s the private market model that the chamber would espouse. … You’ve got these well versed, experienced professionals that are in the marketplace to help you.”

A different marketplace—high-tech manufacturing—is also going to be drawing more experienced professionals to the central part of the state.

President Barack Obama announced an 18-company project, with $140 million in total funding and focused on high-tech manufacturing and energy efficiency, during his visit to Raleigh earlier this month.

Residents of Lee County, with its proximity to Raleigh and strong manufacturing base (about 30 percent of the local workforce, experts have said, compared to a state average of 20 percent) could be well-positioned to snatch up some of the approximately 1,000 jobs associated with the venture, which will begin this spring.

Joyce said all the new developments are good, but there is one caveat: money.

As the state moves toward a private model, that new organization will of course have to be funded by private businesses and other donors. That will mean increased competition over deep-pocketed donors which the still-incomplete chamber/EDC merger—known officially as the Sanford-Lee County Partnership for Prosperity—will have to start going after immediately.

That increased competition for funding with the state — as well as with the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, which will lose some of its state funding in the shakeup — will make raising funds locally more difficult, Joyce said.

"We are going to try to raise funds from small businesses and large businesses. And many of our large companies—such as Caterpillar, Static Control, Coty and Pfizer—are going to be asked to also contribute to regional and state efforts. So as we move toward a more private model, certainly all of the organizations, state and local, will be scrambling for resources.

“So we’ll be out there competing, putting our best foot forward."

Donnie Oldham, chairman and executive director of the EDC, told The Herald recently that he also thought Lee County and all of its development efforts are well-positioned for the future.

"We finally seem to have all of our energy in the same direction to try and create an environment to have more jobs in the county," Oldham said. "That is where we are all headed and pulling in that direction."