Jackson County’s Economic Development Commission has again been thrust into turmoil, a near constant state of affairs for the entity in recent years.
The county’s economic development director announced her resignation last week, and along with it, offered her views on what the county should do to kickstart a new day for its economic development efforts. Most notable on the list is to dissolve the economic development commission.
The resignation comes on heels of a somewhat contentious EDC meeting last month, where the mayors of Sylva and Dillsboro charged the county with stripping the EDC board of its power and relegating it to a mere advisory role.
Meanwhile, the EDC members say they can’t figure out exactly what they are supposed to be doing. The board has been preoccupied with their structure — namely whether they have any real authority or are simply an advisory board to county leaders.
The quandary over their role has dominated discussion at their meetings in recent months, distracting them from their ultimate mission of advancing economic development, EDC members say.
The EDC board is a joint venture between Jackson County and the four towns in the county: Sylva, Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills. It was created in the late 1990s.
Alleged financial mismanagement by those at the helm and concerns over a lack of oversight for public funds at the disposal of an all-volunteer body led the county to withdraw from the EDC in 2005. The EDC continued to limp along without county participation for 18 months until the county eventually threw its hat back in the ring.
The board was reconstituted with a new set of bylaws, but not without a power struggle between the county and the towns over who would hold the most authority.
It appears the issue was never properly settled and continues to pose problems — thus the still-festering issue over the board’s role and authority today.
Dorothea Megow-Dowling, the EDC director, said the county missed an opportunity by agreeing to reconstitute the board under the same structure rather than dissolving the EDC and creating a new one from scratch.
“Things move on best when there is a very clear cut from a past situation that has been difficult,” Dowling said. “I don’t think that cut was perceived as adequate.”
Of the nine members on the EDC board, the majority have come on within the past year. Only three on the board were there during the past turmoils.
Yet the entity has been unable to shake itself of old baggage in the public light. In addition, it inherited a structure that isn’t working, Dowling said.
Dowling sees another fatal flaw: the lack of a comprehensive economic development strategy. Setting up an EDC structure, appointing members and hiring a director before a clear mission is defined is a backwards approach, Dowling said.
“I believe it would be very effective to let this current structure go and establish a steering committee to oversee an economic development planning process,” Dowling said. “My recommendation is to start with the task, scope the task, then put in place the best teams and resources you can to accomplish the objectives you’ve set. My recommendation is and has been dissolution of the EDC.”
Disbanding the EDC is not an easy proposition, however. It is not solely up to the county, or even to the EDC board members themselves. As so-called forming entities, all four towns in the county have a say on whether the existing structure remains in tact.
“We are stuck with it unless there is some willingness on the part of municipalities to do something different,” County Manager Ken Westmoreland said.
There was a failed attempt to dissolve the EDC board two-and-a-half years ago rather than reconstitute it. It was voted on by elected officials from the county and all four towns and failed by a vote of 15 to 13.
Dowling’s resignation has caused all the old tensions still lurking below the surface to emerge, Westmoreland said.
Joe Cline, chairman of the EDC, is reluctant for EDC members to wade into the fray over whether the board should be dissolved.
“I feel like that rests with the local elected officials,” Cline said. “It is up to the stakeholders and the people who put it together to decide.”
Cline acknowledged that some EDC members would like to weigh in. At the meeting last week, however, he suggested holding off unless the board is asked for its opinion.
“To me it is a moot point. One way or the other we could all be removed tomorrow,” Cline said at the meeting.
The board may be not be able to speak with a unified voice, however. Some members want to assert more authority and hold the decision-making power, while others are fine in an advisory role.
“The advisory board I think is the way we need to go,” said Larry Morris, an EDC member who owns a kitchen and bath cabinetry dealership in Cashiers.
At this point, the county will not rush to replace Dowling, Westmoreland said.
“I think we are going to take some time before we try to re-employ someone in this position to analyze some of these questions,” Westmoreland said. “I think we do need as a community and as a county to come to some general consensus as to what we are going to focus on.”
If an economic development director is preoccupied chasing every elusive job on the block, the county can’t focus its resources on the prospect that are the most probable fit.
“It may be three, four, five, half a dozen things that we can do best, that works with the environment and our labor market and infrastructure,” Westmoreland said. “We can’t just continue to go negotiate with everyone about everything.”
County Commissioner Tom Massie agreed. Massie likes the idea of taking a time-out to create a comprehensive economic development strategy before deciding on a new director or a possible new structure for the EDC board.
“We need to go through a planning process where we bring everyone interested in economic development to the table,” Massie said. “We have to get them all on the same page of the hymn book.”
Massie had hoped that the county could initiate such a process sooner rather than later, and believed Dowling’s skill set was well-suited to move the process forward.
“It is just a shame everything is caught up in this nitpicking,” Massie said. “It has been a source of frustration.”
Westmoreland isn’t sure the existing EDC board is the right vehicle to create a strategic plan. Westmoreland instead favors a special task force or blue ribbon committee to embark on a comprehensive strategy, guided by a professional consultant or facilitator.
“I think that would serve a very useful purpose to explore our strengths and weakness and what we are trying to pursue,” Westmoreland said.
A special task force should be crafted to include those with something to contribute to the discussion of economic development. The same approach should ideally be used when making appoints to the EDC itself, Westmoreland said.
“Those appointments need to have some expertise to assist in working with business prospects,” Westmoreland said. “Just appointing general citizenry with an interest in economic development won’t satisfy that need.”
Cart before the horse
Dowling said it would be wise to have an economic development strategy in place before bringing in another director.
“This goes to the crux of the matter that really needs resolution. What person do you want in place for the county and what do you want that person to be doing?” Dowling said.
A strategy should also be in place before a board is created, Dowling said. Instead, the board’s structure was inherited and appointments made to fill the seats before a task was decided on.
Since Larry Morris came on the EDC several months ago, he has seen the issue of the EDC’s role and its structure dominate their agenda.
“A lot of time is taken up by trying to determine what is our role,” Morris said. “We are struggling to define how best we can serve.”
Others shared his characterization of the meetings.
“The discussion tends to revolve around the function of the EDC rather than around the tasks required to help economic development progress,” Dowling said. “When that occurs again and again, for me, I make an observation that there is something not working well structurally. There is frustration all around.”
Morris would rather spend his time working for economic development, but thinks they need a comprehensive strategy and approach, which doesn’t exist now.
“Should we be focusing on studies and research, infrastructure growth, or sitting back and waiting until a prospective business makes an inquiry about moving here?” Morris said.
That’s the issue Morris would like feedback on from the county and towns.
“It is pointless for use to think in one direction if the people we are accountable to are thinking in a different direction,” Morris said.
The EDC board is a joint entity comprised of appointees from each of the towns and the county. But Dowling reports directly to the county manager — not the EDC board. That has bothered some on the EDC board, and the mayors of Sylva and Dillsboro.
Cline countered accusations that the issue is one of a power struggle. “It shouldn’t be an issue of a power struggle,” Cline said.
He said the EDC members merely need clarity.
“There is confusion there with it being a county employee but working for the EDC board,” Cline said. “How can you serve two masters? We all need to be on the same page, but at the end of the day, there can really only be one boss.”
Cline said it has to be one or the other.
“Does the county and municipalities want us to be an advisory board or a totally independent board?” Cline said. “Right now we are operating with one foot in each.”
As a result, the board has been preoccupied with what its role is, Cline said.
The EDC members have drafted a list of questions they want the towns and the county to answer, primarily dealing with what their role is but also what types of economic development projects they should be undertaking. The plan is to present the list of questions in the run-up to a joint meeting held each quarter between all the town boards and the county.
“Our position is we just want to be told by the people that formed this what they want,” Cline said.
It is unclear why the issue has come to a head again. The job description for the economic development director was hashed out during a lengthy round of meetings between the county and towns two-and-a-half years ago and included a clause that gives the county manager hiring and firing authority over the director rather than the board.
Jackson County antes up most of the money for economic development. While the county puts in $105,000. Each town puts in just $1 for each resident, amounting to a few hundred for Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills, and $2,500 for Sylva.
The county ultimately shoulders the financial burden of economic development, and therefore argued at the time the economic development director should be a county employee under county control.
“It was never our intention that the only job responsibility for the economic development director was to staff the EDC,” Massie said.
Cline, however, points out that the job description for the EDC director, says he or she will report both to the county manager and the chairman of the EDC board.
“There is no dispute it is a county employee and a county position,” Cline said. “Everybody understood it was a county employee and the hiring and firing of that position would rest with the county manager. But it was also stated they would work for the EDC.”
Whatever the case, the actual role of the EDC remains a source of confusion not only for those on it, but some town leaders, Dowling said, and therefore needs fixing.
“Obviously, it was not clear in their minds. Obviously, everybody did not have the same understanding,” Dowling said.
Westmoreland doesn’t see anything wrong with the EDC serving in a formal advisory role, just as the planning board or any number of county boards are advisory in their capacity.
Massie said the question of whether the EDC should officially be dubbed an advisory-only body is one he can’t answer right now.
“That is a role that will have to be determined at some point in the future. I can’t preconceive what the outcome of that is going to be before we have those discussion,” Massie said.
Cline said regardless of how the seats at the table are divvied up, the EDC will represent the entire county fairly.
“You are not going to say for example if you don’t have a representative from Sylva that there won’t be any economic development in the town of Sylva,” Cline said.
Cline doesn’t think the debate over the board’s structure is a major hurdle.
“Everyone is committed to the economic development of the county and understanding what is the best way to do that,” Cline said.
Some EDC board members complained at last month’s meeting that Dowling was doing the bidding of the county at the expense of their own board.
“I can understand perhaps why the EDC board feels somewhat neglected,” Westmoreland said. “We have consumed almost all of her time on several significant projects.”
But with good reason. Dowling’s calendar has been filled in recent months with courting several major employers with the prospect of bringing new jobs to the county. One is widely known already: an expansion of the Jackson Paper plant.
To land the jobs, the county promised incentives. While it is not a new tactic, it was for Jackson. Dowling had to craft the incentive deals and legal contracts from scratch.
Westmoreland said the minutia of orchestrating the state and county incentive packages is immense.
“You don’t just touch bases or two times you touch base dozens of times,” Westmoreland said.
Dowling has several similar ventures in play from companies that expressed an interest in setting up shop on the old Tucksegee Mills property and the Whittier Industrial park. Dowling did not brief the EDC board on the prospect employers she was working with, however.
Cline said she should have, since the EDC’s role is presumably to help facilitate new companies moving into the county.
“There was no point in us even meeting once a month with no information about what was even going on,” Cline said.
But Westmoreland said Dowling can’t disclose the prospective companies to the EDC board.
“These prospective business plans are very proprietary,” Westmoreland said.
There are too many people on it from too many different entities to ensure that word wouldn’t leak out, he said.
With most economic development boards in the region, the EDC director does disclose — in private sessions — the companies that are being courted.
Westmoreland said he would rather disclose the prospects to handpicked stakeholders, mainly just those in a position to bring resources to the table.
Dowling said she has also spent time in her initial months on the job meeting with stakeholders and prospective partners.
“I’ve laid some groundwork with people and organizations that might be able to work with the county,” Dowling said. “I am very pleased I have been able to help the county with the things I have become involved with,” Dowling said.