Discussions continue on Chamber-EDC merger

Support mounts for new economic entity
May. 16, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Economic development in Lee County is moving in the right direction, according to local experts and officials, although it's also facing uncertainty due to changes at both the state and county levels.

That was the message at a joint meeting of the Lee County Economic Development Corporation, Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce and various governmental interests held Wednesday morning at the McSwain Center on Tramway Road. The groups, represented Wednesday by about two dozen people, are discussing a merger of the EDC and the Chamber into a joint public-private development group.

The meeting was supposed to include all three local governments, but no officials or politicians from the city of Sanford were in attendance because the meeting coincided with a city council retreat — although city officials have attended similar meetings in the past. Broadway sent three representatives, and Lee County sent five. U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers also sent a liaison.

Brad Simpson, chairman of the Chamber's board of directors, said he was glad to see such a unified front. He said that in the past, he had been wary of investing in the EDC because he wasn't sure to what extent local businessmen or politicians supported its efforts. Now, he said, that question appears to have been answered as the corporation moves closer to becoming a public-private partnership.

At Wednesday's meeting, the EDC board unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding regarding its merger with the privately funded Chamber, and which would also let the new entity receive some government funding and planning assistance. The Lee County Board of Commissioners and Chamber previously approved the same memo, and Sanford and Broadway are expected to vote on it soon.

Crystal Morphis, whose company Creative Economic Development Consulting has been working with the EDC after executive director Bob Heuts resigned last year, said public-private partnerships are the most common approach. But, she said, it is good leadership and community buy-in that matter more than anything else in forming a successful development group.

Lee Commissioner Jim Womack — who has long been an opponent of the EDC's previous strategy of incentive-based recruitment — said the current reimaging process is a good start. However, he noted that many difficult decisions, such as which industries or specific companies to recruit, how to do so, and how much growth to pursue, are still ahead.

"We do not want to lose the momentum we have now," he said. "We need everyone around this table — and then some — working."

Earlier, Womack also questioned the EDC's most recent budget, which was heavy on income and low on expenses. He commended its restraint but also asked why the group needed public support at all, as it appeared to be doing so well. The group received about two-thirds of its $275,000 budget for the current fiscal year from the county.

Morphis responded that the savings are likely a one-time-only deal because the group has recently held off on many usual expenses but expects to resume them in the future. It temporarily moved from its own offices to a free space in the county government building, but plans to move out once its future is more clear. It also replaced two full-time employees with two part-time employees. The group also isn't doing any internal or external marketing or public relations until its structure is finalized and it begins re-branding itself.

Speaking later about the state of growth in Lee County, Morphis said it had been slow but has been picking up in the last six months. She said the EDC is in the midst of recruiting several companies to Lee County, and that Lee County is home to one of two major sites in the Research Triangle Region for biofuel production, which will hopefully lead to development.

However, Morphis said, the creation of the joint Chamber-EDC partnership needs to move along quickly because it's difficult to work in an interim setting for a long period of time.

"Right now, we're not proactive," she said. "We're very reactive."

The next steps locally will be steering committee meetings the rest of this month, followed by more in-depth work starting in June. At the state level, it's simply a waiting game for the legislature to decide how to split up the state into various economic regions, in which Lee County will be in the Fayetteville region. An earlier version of the bill being considered — Senate Bill 176 — would have put Lee County in the Charlotte economic zone, which local business leaders and politicians on both sides of the aisle were almost unanimously against.

Charles Hayes, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership and also a Sanford resident, said Fayetteville is a better fit than Charlotte, although it still makes less sense than Raleigh-Durham — an argument he said is backed up by academic and industry research in multiple studies, all of which specifically included Lee County in the greater Triangle region.

But no matter where the government eventually decides Lee County should belong, he said, the Research Triangle Regional Partnership can still include Sanford and the surrounding areas in their marketing and development work because it does what's best for business, not what fits within whatever lines the General Assembly decides to draw.

"We'll work with the state; we'll be a good team player with the state, but we won't be led by the state," Hayes said.