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Wednesday, 20 December 2006 00:00

Jackson County mulls EDC participation

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Two years have passed since the Jackson County Commissioners suspended their participation with the local Economic Development Commission, launched an internal investigation and audit of the EDC and EDC office and attempted to remove Tom McClure — the EDC Chairman, chairman of the county’s revolving loan committee and Chairman of the Jackson Airport Authority — from all county committees and appointments.

 

But in those two years change has been slow to come.

The investigation and attempted removal of McClure produced few results. An audit conducted by Dixon Hughes did not find any missing monies. McClure is still on the EDC — according to EDC bylaws if anyone were to remove him, it would have to be WCU Chancellor John Bardo, who appointed him — though the commission last year elected Sylva Mayor Brenda Oliver and Dillsboro Mayor Jean Hartbarger to serve as co-chairs. And McClure sued commissioners to win back his seat on the airport authority, which just now is coming back up for re-appointment.

Moreover, EDC operations haven’t changed. The commission has been undergoing a slow process to rewrite its bylaws, in part to improve EDC functions and in part to lure Jackson County and Southwestern Community College, which also suspended participation in the EDC, back to the table.

“They are eager and actively seeking for our participation again,” McMahan said.

McMahan and County Manager Ken Westmoreland are on a task force created to re-work the bylaws. The re-written bylaws have been approved by every participating organization except Jackson County, McMahan told county commissioners Monday night.

“Until Jackson County approves those, they will not go into effect,” he said.

Commissioners have not had in-depth discussions regarding the new bylaws, but agreed upon a preliminary reading that additional changes needed to be made, most having to do with county interests.

For example, the new bylaws reduce EDC membership from 10 members to nine. The EDC is comprised of representatives of the county commissioners, towns of Dillsboro, Sylva, Forest Hills and Webster, as well as Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University. County commissioners originally got three appointments, Sylva two, and the remaining towns one each. The reduction means that county commissioners will have two rather than three appointments to the EDC.

“Which is a little bit of a concern to me, I don’t understand what the logic is,” Commissioner Tom Massie said of the reduction.

The county traditionally has contributed the most money to the EDC. Therefore, commissioners felt that they had a right and responsibility to launch their investigation two years ago — and a reason for having the most appointments to the commission. Rather than reduce the commission in size, Massie proposed potentially increasing membership to represent the business community, including someone from local industry and a local financial institution.

Also, in the original bylaws SCC and WCU were voting ex-officio members. In the new bylaws, the members are made permanent with voting power; however, are not required to financially contribute to the EDC.

“As the old saying goes, if you want to play, you’ve got to pay,” McMahan said.

And the new bylaws state that the EDC may hire an executive director but do not spell out who that person will be an employee of. An addition to the bylaws states that the principal office and mailing address shall be Sylva Town Hall — a change from when the EDC office was located in the county’s administration center.

And for now, the bylaws state that a job description for the executive director will be written upon the employment of such a person. This lack of direction was a sticking point for county commissioner Joe Cowan. Cowan said that despite the bylaw changes he didn’t see any focus “other than what we’ve always had.”

The EDC’s stated purpose is vague: “... to promote the general welfare and prosperity of the people of Jackson County through overall economic growth and development by increasing the number and quality of jobs, career opportunities and employment potential; the EDC shall establish policies and goals for achieving this purpose ...”

“Our EDC has essentially been ineffective for years and year and years,” Cowan said. “I’d like to see a new direction.”

Commissioner Massie agreed saying that if the county wanted to affect any real changes in how the EDC operates, the time to do so is now. Massie said in his experience economic development was only growing more competitive and there needed to be something to offer businesses interested in the area — namely water and sewer. If a large company was knocking down the door to come to the Sylva area, the water and sewer capabilities are not there.

McMahan proposed that commissioners each provide him with written comments regarding their concerns about the EDC and bylaw changes, which he would in turn present at the next task force meeting to be held Jan. 22.

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