Bill to overhaul N.C.'s economic development makes officials nervous

May. 15, 2013 @ 04:44 AM

A bill in the N.C. Senate to overhaul the state’s economic development structure would abolish state funding for existing regional economic development organizations, which has raised apprehension among local and regional officials.

Senate Bill 127 did not have input from local economic development officials before it suddenly was introduced in the Senate Commerce Committee late Thursday, said Dana Clark, the chairman of the Lenoir Tourism Development Authority and chairman of the hospitality and tourism management program at Appalachian State University.

“There’s real frustration on our part because not a lot of communication is going on,” he said at a meeting Tuesday morning of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commision. “We don’t know what they are doing, and they don’t seem to be asking our opinion.”

Clark and Deborah Murray, the executive director of the EDC, said that local officials intend to shift and adapt to any change adopted at the state level.

“We want to remain optimistic,” Murray said, “because the governor said we need to be more competitive.”

But there are many unknowns about what is changing and what new structures might be created.

“It’s difficult for us to plan because we don’t know what tools are in our toolbox,” Murray said. “… We don’t know how it’s going to roll out, or who’s going to manage what.”

Gov. Pat McCrory has not publicly weighed in on the Senate bill, which was up for final approval in the Senate on Tuesday. When McCrory announced a major overhaul of the N.C. Department of Commerce in April that would essentially make it a public-private partnership under the name Partnership for Prosperity, there were no details about how the change would affect the seven existing regional economic development groups. He said at the time that those details were still being worked out. SB 187 may provide some of those details, but McCrory's office did not return a phone call from the News-Topic for comment Tuesday.

Among the people most caught by surprise by the bill are the people who work for the regional economic development commissions, including AdvantageWest, which works with 23 western N.C. counties, including Caldwell.

SB 127 would abolish state funding for those seven commissions, which would then have to find other funding or just go away.

In their place the bill would create eight “Collaboration for Prosperity Zones,” and the Department of Commerce would take over the functions of the regional commissions. Caldwell would be one of 15 counties in the Northwest Region zone, extending from Yadkin County west to Mitchell County.

It's not clear from the bill whether the Department of Commerce would try to absorb any staff or programs from the existing commissions, but Scott Hamilton, the president and CEO of AdvantageWest, said it would seem unlikely.

“We do so many things beyond what Commerce does,” he said, and beyond the scope of duties mentioned in the bill.

Among those is Blue Ridge Food Ventures, an 11,000-square-foot, shared-use commercial kitchen and natural products manufacturing facility, which acts as a business incubator specifically for food and natural products businesses.

Hamilton also pointed out that it was an AdvantageWest-sponsored event showing site-selection consultants around the region that led eventually to Google coming to Lenoir.

“Google did not locate there because of our site consultant event,” but the event exposed the site-selection consultant who worked with Google to both the site and the partnerships available in the region, he said.

AdvantageWest receives about $1 million a year from the state, which he said would not go far in starting economic development efforts in the region from scratch.