Change to bill puts Lee County back in Raleigh economic zone

Officials applaud move that retains local ties to Triangle
Jun. 29, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

One of the few political proposals Sanford, Broadway and Lee County elected officials supported in unison this year has now been approved by both the N.C. House and Senate.

Senate Bill 127, which would split the state into regional economic zones, originally had Lee County as the farthest-flung county in a region whose main metro area was Charlotte. Local officials were not pleased, saying they thought Lee County belonged in the Raleigh region and that being grouped with Charlotte would do more harm than good. The bill was later amended to put Lee County in the Fayetteville region, which local leaders said was better than being included with Charlotte but still not as good as being with Raleigh. Thursday, however, the bill passed the House with Lee County as part of the Raleigh region.

"That's fabulous, to be honest with you," Donnie Oldham, Lee County Economic Development Corporation chairman and executive director, said Friday morning after being informed of the change. "This makes it a lot simpler."

Lee County is already engaged in multiple private and semi-private partnerships in the Triangle area — most notably the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, which focuses on helping members recruit businesses  — and Oldham said officials would likely have chosen to remain in those groups in the future no matter what. Having the government's definition of the Raleigh economic zone line up with the private sector's definition, he said, should ensure efficiency.

"It just makes it a lot cleaner for us to be involved with the Raleigh area on all fronts," Oldham said.

Like the private groups, the state's eight regional government groups proposed by this bill will facilitate economic development and marketing. They also must maintain centralized offices staffed by members of the state's departments of Commerce, Transportation and Environment and Natural Resources, as well as the Community Colleges System Office, for local governments, schools and businesses to turn to for help. Those offices will be created by January 1, according to the bill, which won't become law until it's ratified and then approved by Gov. Pat McCrory.

Lee, Chatham and Harnett counties are in the North Central Region Prosperity Zone, which also includes Durham, Franklin, Granville, Johnston, Orange, Person, Vance, Wake and Warren counties.

"To me, that's a good move," Lee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlie Parks said Friday after learning of the changes. "We had established relations in [the Raleigh] area that now we won't have to try to recreate somewhere else."

His board passed a resolution against the bill in April, when Lee County was still grouped with Charlotte. The Broadway Board of Town Commissioners also passed a resolution against the bill, and members of the Sanford City Council traveled to Raleigh in March with city staff to speak with legislators against the bill.

"Hallelujah Lord Jesus," Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive said when informed of the news on Friday. "What a relief."

She said that with Wake County's growth creeping southward, Lee County is in a perfect position to become even more closely linked with the metro area, so it's good that legislators saw that as well.

"It's a matter of convenience; it's a matter of familiarity; it's a matter of common sense," she said. "We have had a tie with the Research Triangle since it began."

Broadway Mayor Donald Andrews was the only head of any of the local governing boards to have known about the change to the bill before it passed Thursday, informing his fellow town board members on Monday at their monthly meeting.

"Now we're back to Wake [County], so that's a good thing," he said.