Summit solicits ideas for economic growth

Lee officials gather to formulate plan
Mar. 01, 2013 @ 05:58 PM

One thing was made starkly clear during the Lee County Economic Development Summit Friday — area leaders aren't satisfied with Lee County's economic condition, and they think a new plan is needed for it to improve.

More than 80 area government, business and education leaders met for a six-hour summit at the McSwain Extension Education and Agriculture Center to formalize a strategic economic plan for the county.

The summit — facilitated by N.C. State University Business and Technology Extension Service State Program Director Dan Parks and Southern Growth Policies Board Executive Director Ted Abernathy — featured an overview of Lee County's current economic setting, a proposal to create one corporation to manage economic development and how the county should move forward in strategic planning.

With a high manufacturing base, Lee County was disproportionately impacted by the economic crisis and has not managed to close the unemployment gap, Abernathy said. The number of jobs available within the county has plateaued, and the jobs that are gaining nationwide are going to college graduates, he said. From the 350 collected surveys submitted to Abernathy and Parks that focused on Lee County's economy, they said many of the responses were blunt in the area's weaknesses and strengths.

"If you feel that way, that's fine," Abernathy said of the negative responses. "But fix it. Don't just be mad about it."

Parks and Abernathy encouraged attendees to record their thoughts, ideas and critiques about different summit topics on index cards. After each question — including what are some possible obstacles moving forward, what does success look like for Lee County and what are the desired outcomes of the summit — the cards were collected to be compiled in the report to be submitted to the Lee County Board of Commissioners.

Many people agreed a spirit of cooperation among the county, City of Sanford and Town of Broadway, and creating definitive benchmarks, were necessary to successfully move forward.

"What are your aspirations for Lee County?" Abernathy asked those assembled.

Commissioner Kirk Smith said he'd like to see Lee County capitalize on its water and sewer capabilities. Lee County Schools Superintendent Jeff Moss said he hopes every Lee County student will graduate with a one-year certificate from Central Carolina Community College or 40 hours of college credit. Tom Snell, chairman of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce's Board of Directors, joked his aspiration would be to see a local Panera Bread.

Input on creating a sole corporation to manage economic development — including combining efforts by the Lee County Economic Development Corporation and the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce — was also solicited during the summit. 

According to a draft proposal introduced by EDC Chairman Donnie Oldham and outlined by Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce President Bob Joyce, the organization would oversee small business development, business recruitment and retention, Chamber services, and serve as the visitor marketing and promotions bureau.

"We have not talked about a timetable and how we would do this," Joyce said. "But it seems to us nine to 12 months is an appropriate timetable when we are looking at fund-raising efforts."

Nothing is set in stone, Joyce said, but a merged organization would serve as a public-private partnership.

The proposed corporation would effectively fold the chamber and EDC into a single entity, governed by a board of directors — which will include stakeholders who have made an investment in the corporation. 

As for the immediate future of the EDC, commissioners will need to decide how the organization is funded, Lee County Manager John Crumpton said.

"The three things commissioners will have to address in the coming months is raising private funds for the joint organization, how to keep the EDC going in the interim and the process for moving forward for the strategic plan," Abernathy said.

The input from the summit should not be collected and placed on a shelf, said Lee County Commissioners Chairman Charlie Parks. The next step, he said, will be reviewing the summit notes and continuing to solicit input from the community.

"I appreciate all of you coming out here," Charlie Parks said. "All of your comments are important. We will take them, review them and come up with a viable plan. We work for you all."