Lee County jobless rate near pre-recession levels
In September, Lee County's unemployment rate fell into single digits for the first time in five years — yet it's still one of the highest rates of any county in the state.
The county's October unemployment rate rose slightly, to 9.7 percent from 9.5 percent in September, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. Both months' data was only released recently due to delays caused by the federal government shutdown. The last time unemployment in Lee County was below 10 percent was in October 2008, just as the recession began. It reached as high as 14.8 percent in July of 2009.
Bob Joyce, president of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce, said he's cautiously optimistic about the county's economic future.
"I think the trend is excellent," Joyce said, adding that most of the boost in local hiring appeared to be in health care fields.
Yet he did note that every nearby county — and nearly every other county in the state — had a lower unemployment rate than Lee County in October, which had the 87th-highest jobless rate out of North Carolina's 100 counties.
"The not-so-great news, or the cloud of the silver lining, is that everybody else is lower than we are," Joyce said.
Neighboring Chatham County's 4.7 percent unemployment was the lowest in the state in October; the highest was in Scotland County at 14.4 percent. The statewide average was 7.5 percent. Harnett County had 8.6 percent unemployment, and Moore County's rate was 7.1 percent.
"We are so pleased to see these great reports as signs that we are on the right path," Walter Petty, chairman of the Chatham County Commissioners, said in a press release from the county's Economic Development Corporation. "We have worked hard to streamline Chatham County's regulations and ordinance requirements."
The Chatham County EDC said growth has been led by the entrance of new businesses, such as Walmart and clean energy company Strata Solar, as well as hiring at several existing businesses.
In Lee County, the EDC and chamber of commerce are merging into a new entity called the Sanford-Lee County Partnership for Prosperity. Joyce said that for Lee County to catch up with its neighbors, there also must be a merger of strategies into one singular plan of attack.
"As we continue to work on this merger, we've got to make sure that we have the right policies, the right incentives, the aggressive stance to attract jobs and paychecks," he said. "... And we've got good buildings to sell; we've got the infrastructure to work with. We just need to bring jobs in."
Charlie Parks, chairman of the Lee County Commissioners, said he believes Lee County should work on further improving its infrastructure, and that the practice of offering incentives — which often come in the form of tax breaks for companies that agree to move to an area or hire a certain number of people — should only be a last resort and ought to have stricter requirements than local officials have previously imposed.
"[Regarding] incentives, we believe that's one of the last considerations for bringing a company in," Parks said, adding, "We've talked to various counties around the state, and some have have even gone [further] and have required, actually, more investment to be able to get incentives than what we do."
Sanford Mayor Chet Mann said he's open to using incentives more often.
"Personally, I don't like incentives in the sense that I don't like to give anything away," Mann said. "But they are part of the game, and from a practical point of view, we have to be able to play. I don't want to sacrifice Sanford out of an ideological principal."
He continued the metaphor, comparing economic recruiting to basketball: "We can't win when we only have a two-point shot and everybody else has a three-point shot. And incentives are that three-point shot."
One thing both local political leaders agreed on was the potential in the city's proposed community improvement projects — to be paid for by $14.5 million in bonds approved by voters earlier this year — to entice further development.
"We're trying to make things better in Lee County so we can draw businesses here," Parks said. "If the city uses their bond money in the way they say they're going to use it, I think that can go a long way."