Haywood candidates come up empty on fresh ideas for economic development
Candidates for Haywood County commissioner all agreed economic development is one of the top issues facing the county during an election forum last week, but they offered few concrete ideas for how to go about it.
“We need to get jobs to come in here and help these people out,” said Terry Ramey, a commissioner candidate on the Democratic ticket. “We need to get some industry to come in here. Some way or another, we’ve got to have them.”
The white knight refrain has become an empty cliché in recent years, however. A series of plant closings dating back to the mid-‘90s and the resulting factory-job carnage left a gaping void in the economy that’s been plugged and patched and puttied but never truly filled.
Ramey’s call — “We got to get some jobs in here like we had before,” he said — isn’t exactly a new one. Everyone wants to see a big company come in offering good wages and benefits to workers with limited education and experience.
“We need to be working on high-paying, production-type jobs that bring more money in here,” said Charles Boyd, another candidate on the Democratic ticket.
But how to do it has proven elusive.
“If there were a genie in a bottle that we could rub and it would jump out and we would get jobs we would all be rubbing it,” said Dave Blevins, chairman of the Haywood County Economic Development Council.
At a forum sponsored by The Mountaineer newspaper last week, candidates were asked to name the top three issues facing the county. Every single candidate cited jobs and economic development.
“Number one is the economic situation we have in the county. We need to work on job creation and create a healthy business environment in the county,” said Brandon Rogers, a Republican candidate for commissioner.
Later in the forum, candidates were asked whether the county was spending enough or doing enough on economic development.
“This is the biggest issue we have as a county,” Rogers said, adding that he would “definitely” support more spending on economic development.
But fellow Republican candidate Greg Burrell countered that he didn’t think “throwing more money” at economic development was the answer.
“Spending more money — that would be fine if it weren’t for taxing people,” Burrell said.
Instead of spending money on economic development, Burrell thinks lowering property taxes would do more to attract companies that government spending on economic development would.
“Taxes on small businesses hurts,” Burrell said.
When Rogers’ turn came back around, even though a new question was on deck, he used part of his time to respond to Burrell. He clarified that he wasn’t for raising property taxes but that economic development should be a bigger priority in the budget, and should be viewed as an investment.
“I want to spend more money on creating jobs and bringing businesses in,” Rogers said.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley, running for re-election on the Republican ticket also, said there was a correlation between economic development spending and results. Buncombe has spent $29 million in economic development incentives over five years, and that netted 6,000 jobs and $1 billion in private capital investment, Ensley said.
Steve Brown, a candidate on the Democratic ticket, said Haywood needed to do better selling itself.
“We are going to have to advertise and have people out there working on a day-to-day basis,” Brown said.
Robin Black, a Democratic candidate, said the county should do more to enhance its outdoor recreation appeal.
“There is a whole vast wonderland out there,” Black said.
Black said outdoor recreation could be a vehicle for economic development “if we put a little money in it,” both as a destination and as a quality of life amenity that would attract people to move here.
Burrell and Ramey both criticized what they felt was an over-emphasis on tourism, however.
Several candidates cited economic development ideas that already exist.
Boyd suggested offering economic incentives for new companies willing to locate here. He wasn’t aware the county already has an economic incentive program.
“I don’t think they do. If they do have that, I don’t know anything about it,” Boyd said.
The county has given cash incentives in exchange for job creation twice in recent years — for Sonoco Plastics and ConMet — as well as debated doing so for a recycling plant last fall.
Black said she would like to create a small business incubator.
“Many small business can bring in the same number of jobs,” Black said.
There is already a small business incubator in the county and has been for 30 years, offering low rent and support services for start-up companies, though it’s almost always full.
Brown suggested creating another industrial park. But the county has a 10-acre graded site for the taking in the Beaverdam Industrial Park that it’s been willing to give away since 2009 to a company creating jobs.
Boyd also suggested working with Haywood Community College to provide a workforce training for certain job types.
“Our college could be very significant is the way I see it. We could help bring in the necessary skills to help fill the jobs,” Boyd said.
But HCC already partners with new and existing industries to provide specialized training, ensuring a pipeline of employees in the fields local industries need.
Three candidates — Brown, Ensley and Black — said the shortage of high-speed Internet outside the major population centers in the county was a handicap in economic development.
“We need to find the funds to complete the extra miles that are needed for high-speed Internet in Haywood County,” Brown said.
That’s already a top priority of the existing economic development council, with a dedicated task force trying to find solutions.
Candidates also suggested things that aren’t possible. Black wants to eliminate or reduce taxes on small businesses, namely the tax paid on itemized equipment.
“I don’t see why I have to put down how many cleaning supplies I have in my cupboard,” Black said. However, the business personal property tax is required by state statute and not something the county could legally do away with.
Boyd suggested property tax exemptions for new companies, but counties legally can’t pardon anyone from paying property taxes. It can only offset them through incentive grants, which the county already offers in exchange for job creation.
One reason the candidates didn’t have a magic bullet is because there’s not one, said Blevins.
But Blevins said the economic development council is working every day to recruit prospective companies and to address underlying infrastructure needs — including raw land, high-speed Internet, and utilities like natural gas, water and sewer.
“Is there a formula? No, but there are plans. Are they guaranteed? No,” Blevins said.
Editor's note: Candidate Charles Boyd was unable to attend the forum due to illness. He was asked for a response to the question in a phone interview, but was not prepped with the question ahead of time and was asked to respond in two minutes like those appearing at the forum.
Two of the five seats on the Haywood County Board of Commissioners are up for election. The primary on March 15 will narrow down the field of candidates to two Democrats and two Republicans.
Long-time commissioner Mark Swanger, a Democrat, is not running for re-election, guaranteeing at least one newcomer will win come November.
• Brandon Rogers, owner of Rogers Express Lube and Tire, former production manager at Day International in Arden.
• Greg Burrell, general contractor.
• Kevin Ensley, owner of Ensley Land Surveying.
• Robin Black, certified public accountant who owns her own accounting firm.
• Charles Boyd, owns WNC Landscaping, serves on Haywood Community College board.
• Steve Brown, director of the nonprofit Arc of Haywood County, past director of Haywood Regional Medical Center Foundation and Haywood County Schools Foundation.
• Terry Ramey, 61, retired from towing and mechanic business.