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Wednesday, 30 January 2013 00:00

County likely to take over reins of new Jackson economic commission

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Although Jackson County’s Economic Development Commission has not met in several years, all its board members’ terms have expired and its director has long-since resigned, it technically still exists.

Furthermore, its ghost stands in the way of the county’s plan to create another commission charged with similar goals but hopefully more effective.

County officials plan to broach the issue of what to do about this empty shell of an Economic Development Commission still on the books at a joint meeting between county commissioners and town boards on Monday (Feb 4.)

The four towns in the county — Sylva, Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills — helped create the now defunct economic commission. Thus, their blessing is needed to formally disband it.

Once disbanded, county leaders have talked of recreating the board as a leaner, meaner economic machine.

Under the old structure, each town had seat on the board. But the new board will most likely be a county entity only — made up of business leaders and residents appointed directly by county commissioners.

And a new director, if one is hired, may answer directly to commissioners as well.

County Manager Chuck Wooten said the new arrangement should be better for the county and allow for a more focused and responsive system than the old one.

“For a while, it lost its focus and emphasis,” Wooten said. “The county put in a lot of the money but didn’t have as much say.”

County Commissioner Mark Jones said he thought an economic advisory board of five to seven members and an economic development director, all answering to the county, would be more logical than the previous commission. He pointed out that towns like Forest Hills and Webster, although they had voting seats on the board, weren’t economically driven communities.

Jones said it may be better to reserve advisory roles for the local municipalities but have a county-run board make major decisions. The board’s former power-sharing setup may have been the cause for some of the problems and ill that plagued it, Jones said.

“The basic idea is to see if we can restructure the EDC,” Jones said. “Because (the county) has bigger budgets to use and we could move forward with this restructuring more efficiently.”

Jones said he would like to see the board focus on helping local businesses succeed and expand first, then on attracting new enterprise. Also, he said, it would be important for a new board along with a director to pursue grants and other funding opportunities through the state and federal governments.

Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said he had no qualms about having Sylva’s direct representation being written out of the process. As he put it, economic development controlled by the county would run more efficiently and would help the local municipalities anyway.

Nonetheless, he said he saw the shortcomings in the previous organization that involved all the local towns.

“It probably makes sense for the economic development to be under the county control,” Moody said. “You can get too many fingers in the pie as the old saying goes.”

When it comes to economic development, he said Jackson County needs to approach it as if it is a competition with its neighbors and should try to attract businesses and visitors that might otherwise go to Bryson City or Waynesville.

The push for a new economic development initiative comes on the heels of an economic development report by a regional consulting firm. The county contracted the firm to conduct an economic assessment of the county for more than $20,000.

Their report was published and presented to commissioners this winter. The consultants recommended reconstituting the Economic Development Commission but county commissioners had stated publicly for some time that they wanted to reconstitute it anyway.

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