Leaders mull economic development changes

Mar. 05, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

The general consensus Monday at the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce's monthly Public Policy Luncheon, during which leaders from various groups working to reshape the Lee County Economic Development Corporation talked for about an hour, was that the effort is moving forward but needs more input.

Chamber President Bob Joyce distributed a flow chart, which suggested that the corporation be set up with a chief executive monitoring various interests — such as small business development, business recruitment and retention, chamber services and visitor marketing and promotions. This executive, in turn, would serve at the behest of a board of directors in a leadership structure similar to the chamber's.

Joyce further suggested that, unlike the local chamber of commerce but similar to ones in larger cities like Charlotte, the board of directors could be formed through a pay-to-play system in which various public and private interests pay into a general fund in order to secure a voice on the board, with the funds going to support development projects. No matter what it looks like in the end, however, he said the main priority is clear:

"What I'm hearing — number one, number two and number three — are job creation, job creation and job creation," Joyce said.

But significant differences in opinion surround topics like how the board ought to be funded and staffed, and what its mission and policies would or would not entail. He also emphasized that the model was merely a draft and he is open to suggestions.

Commissioner Jim Womack represented the county at the meeting, reminding those in attendance that the board of commissioners' Republican majority had the votes to direct county funds as it sees fit. He reiterated his desire to see less public funding for the EDC, saying that Alamance County and counties in various other states have let local business leaders and chambers of commerce lead economic development.

"I think if you look at the really successful EDCs around the country, they were chamber-initiated or chamber-run," he said.

The EDC now receives funding from the three local governments: Sanford, Broadway and Lee County. In a joint EDC/Chamber venture, the local governments would share the costs with individuals or companies that also want a say in development policy.

Donnie Oldham, chairman of the board of directors of the current EDC, said he could support moving from a completely taxpayer-funded model to one that's at least 51 percent privately funded. However, he noted that he had some reservations about a strict pay-to play model that might favor large corporations over, for example, the school system.

"We wouldn't have anything to do with education," he said regarding policy. "But it would be in this board's interests to know what the school board wants in businesses."

Those in attendance also discussed the focus the EDC has consistently placed on industry. The organization helped bring many large manufacturing employers, such as Caterpillar and Pfizer, into town, and its website features a collage of several large industrial plants as well as a directory of local manufacturers. Womack said he's not a big fan of manufacturing, saying the jobs are often unstable, sometimes low-paying, and more susceptible than others to a bad economy.

Jerry Pedley, owner of Mertek Solutions, spoke on behalf of his local industrial counterparts like Tyson, Moen, Caterpillar and a long list of others.

"If they all weren't here, 90 percent of us in this room wouldn't be here," he said, after which the conversation switched to the local quality of life, especially the concern that people in high-paying fields or highly competitive ones might not be able to find the quality of houses and subdivisions in Lee County that they want. Joyce said the county doesn't require developers to build sidewalks, curbs and other amenities that might seem like simple things — and which he said can frustrate some contractors — but which could give local developments a classier atmosphere if they were required.