Bill could alter local economic ties with Triangle

Mar. 07, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

A bill now in committee in the N.C. Senate would move Lee County into a new economic region based around Charlotte, with the goal of centralizing decisions about business marketing and recruiting, as well as matters with the N.C. departments of commerce, transportation, and environment.

Sanford-Lee County Planning Director Bob Bridwell called the proposal “just plain stupid,” and Lee County Manager John Crumpton said it could potentially negate current local ties with the Raleigh-Durham region like Triangle J Council of Governments and the Research Triangle Regional Partnership.

Considering Lee County’s proximity to the area, and the formal and informal ties between Sanford and Raleigh-Durham, Bridwell is far from alone in his frustration regarding the proposal that would also send Moore and Chatham counties to the Charlotte region and would send Harnett County to a region covering the southeast corner of the state all the way to the coast.

To become law, Senate Bill 127 — which was sponsored by two Republican senators — must pass the Senate and House of Representatives, both of which are controlled by comfortable Republican majorities, and then be approved by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Local representative Sen. Ronald Rabin — a Republican whose constituents in Lee, Harnett and Johnston counties would be split into three separate economic zones — wasn’t available for a phone interview on the subject, according to his staff, who did provide a statement attributed to Rabin.

“I think it will benefit all three of the counties in District 12 and have a positive effect on jobs and the economy,” Rabin’s statement said. “It will make it easier for both citizens and businesses to avail themselves of the services of the government agencies involved. ... I will keep a close watch on its progress to be sure that it meets the best interest of the people of Lee, Harnett and Johnston counties.”

However, Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce President Bob Joyce repeatedly used the phrase “makes no sense” when speaking about the bill, and Lee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlie Parks, a Republican, said he met with fellow Republicans Rabin and Rep. Mike Stone last week to express concern about Lee County not being in the Raleigh zone, although he said neither told him how they’d vote on the bill as is.

“It would just be, really, a disruption for us,” Parks said. “... (Being in the Raleigh zone) just makes it more convenient for us, and I think they would help channel more business our way. Charlotte doesn’t really have any ties to us.”

Crumpton said he has heard several reactions from county commissioners — none of them positive — and that the commissioners will probably hold a vote on a resolution against the bill at the board’s next meeting, March 18. He said that in addition to the formal and informal ties between Sanford and Raleigh-Durham that he wants to keep, he’s also just generally uncomfortable being grouped with Charlotte and Mecklenberg County.

“You already have complaints from surrounding counties that it’s all about Mecklenburg,” Crumpton said. “You’d have concerns being two hours away.”

Bud Marchant, president of Central Carolina Community College, also said he thinks the bill will do more harm than good locally.

“We like the idea that all three of the counties that we currently serve are in the Triangle,” he said, referring to Lee, Chatham and Harnett counties. “... Charlotte’s a great place. I’m just not sure we have the same linkages there that we have with the Raleigh-Durham area.”

Joyce said that was his main concern as well.

“We have fought for improved transportation — the U.S. 1 four lane, high-speed upgrade,” he said. “We have fought for close ties to the state capital and Research Triangle Park for 30 years, and it makes no sense that when we could go to regional meetings 45 minutes away, we’d change it for meetings two hours away.”

Charles Hayes, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, lives in Lee County with his wife, Jan, executive director of the local United Way. They were unavailable for comment, but Joyce said the fact that the leader of such a group lives locally shows that Lee County is deeply connected to the Triangle. Like Parks, Joyce also expressed concern for local businesses.

“Down to the street level, it would impact business just in the sense that we would have to develop all new customer relationships,” he said. “We’d have to rebuild all those relationships from scratch.”

Under Senate Bill 127, which is in the Senate’s Commerce Committee for review, Lee County would join with Anson, Cabarrus, Chatham, Hoke, Mecklenburg, Montgomery, Moore, Randolph, Richmond, Scotland, Stanly and Union counties.