Archived Opinion

County must take role in new Jackson EDC

The business sector in Jackson County will benefit from the renewed efforts to establish a working Economic Development Commission.

To be most successful, Jackson County government is going to have to step in and take all or most of the responsibility for funding an executive director. In turn, the other entities that will be a part of this restructured EDC will have to accept the fact that the county will be the most important player in economic development.

Jackson County is in dire need of a new EDC. For almost two years controversy has swirled around the commission, controversy that led the county and Southwestern Community College to withdraw from its membership. There was lax oversight on loans that were used to prop up existing industry and fundamental questions about who actually had the power to act as a watchdog over the EDC’s decisions. The set-up of the prior EDC left vital questions in limbo, and the fact that most of its work was done by volunteer appointees further complicated the issue. County staff worked part-time for the EDC, but ultimately the entire set-up was too convoluted.

Mayors Brenda Oliver of Sylva and Dillsboro’s Jean Hartbarger are leading efforts to re-establish the EDC under a new set of bylaws. One of their initial suggestions was to reduce the county’s number of appointees. Doing that while asking the county to become the major financial contributor to the organization does not seem like a recipe for success. If the county is going to provide office space, staff and most of the money, it needs a significant representation.

Jackson County is unique in the mountains in that education is one of its primary industries. Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College are the major players in terms of job creation, along with the hospital and local government. While those educational entities need to be represented on any EDC, it’s important to remember that government agencies and their employees don’t typically think like entrepreneurs.

That’s where a talented executive director, a well-researched set of bylaws and a diversified board with people other than those in government will help. In the end, every EDC’s primary mission is job creation. In this day and age, that means working with small businesses as well as large industries. It means teaming up with the chamber of commerce and tourism officials. At the same time, it means supporting infrastructure spending — whether that be roads, high-speed Internet connection, or water and sewer projects — that will boost Jackson County’s chances of landing large and small firms. And it means planning for where certain types of economic development should take place.

In last week’s Smoky Mountain News, we examined the structure of several economic development commissions in counties throughout the mountains. We found that there is no single way to get this job done, but all of the commissions had one common element — the county government was the primary financial benefactor. Jackson County must be the power player if a successful Economic Development Commission is going to be established.

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