Haywood commissioners question whether scattergun economic development approach is working

fr economicA freewheeling discussion on how to create more jobs stumped Haywood County commissioners last week as they pondered what else the county could be doing that it’s not already.

“To either go get ‘em or to keep ‘em, we’ve done it,” Commissioner Michael Sorrells said. “We have a very willing and open board to be aggressive and pursue and try to bring in what we can. We just have to try to get them here is what we’ve got to do.”

But sometimes it seems like the county’s running in place.

Economic development was one of the more interesting topics discussed at an informal commissioners planning session last week, which ran the gamut from IT challenges to a preventative maintenance schedule for county buildings.

Commissioners and county officials had no trouble identifying the barriers and challenges in the economic development arena — lack of flat land, lack of high-speed Internet, lack of money for incentives, lack of natural gas, and so forth. But solutions weren’t exactly forthcoming.

For years, the lack of flat land has been blamed as a top reason companies don’t come to Haywood to build, one that Economic Development Director Mark Clasby harped on again at last week’s meeting.

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But Sorrells questioned whether that’s really the case.  In his opinion, there’s simply not any takers for the flat land that’s out there.

“You can identify sites and have them ready to sell but you don’t have anybody to come in and potentially buy,” Sorrells said.

Clasby said the issue isn’t simply available land, but land with the right infrastructure.

“You have to have water and sewer, you have to have natural gas, proximity to I-40. The proximity to that infrastructure is the biggest challenge,” Clasby said.

“Broadband is the other big infrastructure,” Commissioner Mark Swanger added.

“As far as a utility, it is now just as important as having water and sewer,” agreed David Francis, the county’s special projects director.

The lack of high-speed Internet throughout the county has been the Achilles’ Heel of economic development lately, and one the county has been actively trying to do something about for a couple of years, including a dedicated high-speed Internet task force.

The county hopes to land a $10,000 grant from the Southwestern Commission for a comprehensive master plan for broadband access. Haywood Advancement Foundation, a nonprofit economic development arm, has already committed to matching funds if the grant is landed.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley said he sees the lack of water and sewer in some parts of the county as an ongoing barrier. The county has applied for a grant and committed $300,000 in matching funds if successful to extend sewer out N.C. 209 to the I-40 interchange at exit 24.

Commissioners also cited the role of Haywood Community College as a player in economic development when it comes to ensuring a ready workforce with tailor-made occupation training.

“Employers are looking for a trained workforce,” Sorrells said. “Training workers is the same as creating jobs for our county.”


Waiting game

It often seems the county’s bases are loaded, and it’s simply waiting for a home run.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick expressed frustration over the waiting game, however. Despite the many avenues the county is pecking away at, Kirkpatrick wondered if there was something more concrete the county could focus on.

“Well, I’d like to know what are we going to do,” Kirkpatrick said at one point in the free-ranging discussion. “What are we going to do? We talk about  ‘Well we know about this, we know about that,’ but what are we going to do?”

If broadband access is the problem, could the county focus harder on that, Kirkpatrick asked.

Unfortunately, the county can’t make high-speed Internet providers run the fiber where it’s needed, and the county is barred from stepping in to do so itself due to laws that prevent the government from competing with the private sector.

“There is not enough population to justify it for these big companies to come in and string lines but there are too many laws to say we can’t do it ourselves,” Swanger said. “If the state and federal government would allow us we could do our own broadband. But we aren’t allowed to do that.”

 “The problem is we don’t have the rooftops,” Sorrells said.

“So if it’s not that then pick something else to do,” Kirkpatrick said.

Sorrells agreed there is a tendency to wait until the county gets a bite from a prospective company rather than seeking them out.

“When someone shows interest, we react to it,” Sorrells said.

Francis said the county could do more to proactively target and recruit specific sectors, like the health care industry.

When it comes to the flat land conundrum, Sorrells questioned the wisdom of buying tracts and grading them in hopes a company will come along and show interest.

“You can go out and spend money prepping umpteen sites, but unless someone is willing to come in and buy it then you end up sitting there on it like we are out at Beaverdam,” he said.

The county spent $700,000 in 2008 grading a 10-acre site in the Beaverdam Industrial site that has yet to find a taker.

One of the only concrete actions the commissioners decided they could get to work on immediately is revamping their economic incentive program. Like most counties, Haywood will offer cash to companies in exchange for job creation and capital investment.

But the bar may be set too high. The county may need to lower its threshold — and its expectations — on the number of jobs a company has to create to qualify for an incentive deal.

“We will take a harder look at that,” Francis said.

The county also needs more flexibility in how it tailors incentives. While one company might need help buying land to build on, another might need help running high-speed fiber to a prospective site. 

“I think our current economic development incentives are fairly rigid and haven’t applied to all the situations we have now, so I think more flexibility would be good,” Swanger said.

Commissioners also contemplated the creation of an economic development fund, setting aside money in the budget each year to aid with unforeseen prospects that might come along.

“If your budget is so tightly constructed there is no place to go to find money, if there is an identified fund, then it makes it easier,” Swanger said.

“So are you talking about a special projects fund you put a little bit into each year?” Ensley asked.

Commissioners liked the idea and directed County Manager Ira Dove to try to build something like that into next year’s budget.

“Whatever it takes to try to get whatever we can in here. I am for whatever it takes to move it forward,” Sorrells said.

The commissioners agreed there was merit in identifying specific sectors with so-called “clustering” tendencies to actively go after. They pointed to Buncombe County’s success landing one brewery after another.

That’s the kind of chain reaction commissioners had been hoping to get when courting a recycling processing center last fall, which had the potential to beget feeders and spin-off companies that used the sorted recyclables coming out of the plant.

Commissioners couldn’t help but cite the irony of finally landing a company that would create jobs — albeit only 30 jobs initially paying $35,000 — being shot down due to public opposition over fears of becoming a trash county.

Commissioners also cited external forces that thwarted an attempt to build a softball tournament complex on 22 acres in Jonathan Creek to bring in traveling ball tournaments. The county hoped to use proceeds from the tourism room tax to build the complex and sought an increase in the room tax from 4 to 6 percent to ensure a funding stream. 

But Republican legislator Michele Presnell shot down the room tax increase, and the 22 acres has sat vacant.

“There are some places that have beat us to the punch now,” Kirkpatrick said. Nearby Macon and Buncombe counties have since developed large softball complexes of their own aimed at hosting tournaments.

“Yeah, I don’t know that it makes sense now,” Swanger said.

The construction of Buncombe’s ball complex was partially funded with tourism room tax, which was hiked from 4 to 6 percent last year.

“Just like we were trying to do,” Sorrells said.


Hidden success stories

The county isn’t without success stories over the past few years. 

“Even though you think a lot’s not happening, it really has happened,” Sorrells said.

ConMet, a company in the Beaverdam Industrial Park near Canton, has carried out a major expansion and added 400 jobs in the past few years.

“Had we added a company with 400 good-paying jobs, it would have been huge news, but it was incremental,” Swanger said.

Other success stories go unnoticed because they don’t involve landing jobs, but rather stopping the loss of jobs. County leaders went to the mat for Evergreen paper mill in Canton to get the state law changed so it would qualify for assistance in paying for natural gas upgrades.

“We had to rattle the bushes with the legislature and everything else,” Swanger said.

The county had also offered financial assistance for Evergreen’s natural gas upgrades if needed, although Evergreen ultimately turned the funding offer down.

Swanger said Haywood’s economy also hinges on the success of the region as a whole. To that end, Haywood does what it can to piggyback off Buncombe.

“I think county lines are becoming less important than they once were, so a win for Buncombe is a quasi win for Haywood and vice versa,” Swanger said.

Smaller success stories include the four microbreweries now operating in Waynesville and a craft distillery soon opening in Maggie Valley. There’s the major expansion of Ingle’s grocery store in Waynesville, the growth of Oaks Unlimited lumber company, an uptick in commercial retail development, and significant increases in tourism over the past four years.

The unemployment rate in Haywood County is 4.8 percent, lower than the state average of 5.6 percent.

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