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Macon hires point man in new push for economic development

Macon County has hired a full-time economic development coordinator, finally joining the ranks of most counties who employ paid directors tasked with growing jobs and recruiting businesses.

Trevor Dalton, 24, has no economic development experience or training — but the county’s economic development board says that’s just what they were looking for. The Economic Development Commission wanted a young upstart who could be molded and instilled with Macon’s business vision, rather than someone predisposed to an off-the-shelf strategy from elsewhere.

Dalton has gotten a good introduction to the business community in Macon County in his first two months on the job. He jumped into the middle of an on-going strategic planning process that landed him in face-to-face interviews with more than 80 stakeholders in the county, from town and county leaders to major business owners.

“We wanted to go out and get their opinions on where they see Macon’s economy going,” Dalton said.

The input will help shape a new economic development strategy as opposed to the county’s more passive approach to economic development in past years.

Unfortunately, Dalton discovered during his meetings with current business leaders that some don’t feel appreciated.

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“We want them to feel welcome in Macon County,” Dalton said.

Others that participated in stakeholder interviews heard the same concern.

“The entities here now are not sure they have government support,” said Macon County Commissioner Jim Davis. “I think we need to put that on the priority list to fix and have a protocol so that doesn’t have the opportunity to rear its head. The first thing we need to do is preserve what we’ve got.”

Part of the problem has been the lack of a go-to person to periodically call on existing companies, since the county relied solely on a volunteer board and had no paid staff.

“A major part of my job is going to be working with our businesses to retain the jobs we currently have in Macon County,” Dalton said.

Ed Shatley, the chairman of the EDC and retired insurance man, said a paid economic development director seemed unnecessary until recently. Macon has always enjoyed relative prosperity in the job market compared to its neighbors, with unemployment often hovering below 4 percent.

“So why did we really need one?” Shatley said of an EDC director.

But when the recession hit, Macon’s unemployment rate reached 13 percent — suddenly worse off job-wise than some of its neighbors. Shatley theorized that Macon’s economy was too dependent on development and real estate.

“It became obvious in the last recession that a high percentage of our jobs were in the construction industry,” Shatley said.

James McCoy, a consultant hired to overhaul the county’s economic development strategy, said adding a paid staff person was a critical move.

“You need someone who gets up every day and thinks about nothing but the future economic health of this community,” McCoy said. “That is something every single community deserves.”

Others involved in the county’s economic development work agree.

“Now we actually have some boots on the ground to carry out some of the ideas we think might work,” said Franklin Mayor Joe Collins.

Mark West, vice-chairman of Macon’s EDC and a former county commissioner, helped push for the hiring of a paid economic development coordinator. Without one, the county wasn’t doing justice to economic development, West said last year. The job of recruiting businesses and nurturing existing ones was not effectively being carried out by the volunteers serving on the EDC board, he said.


New strategy

As part of an overhaul to the county’s economic development strategy, the EDC board was reorganized and expanded to 12 members. County commissioners appoint board members and the board functions as a county department.

McCoy was brought on to steer the process in March 2009.

The new EDC strategy has created four committees within the board to focus on target areas: recruiting new businesses, supporting existing ones, nurturing entrepreneurs and retail development.

McCoy recently gave a presentation on the new economic development strategy to elected leaders in the county. McCoy spent most of the presentation highlighting what a great place Macon County is. McCoy talked about the county’s assets: good hospitals, good schools, good quality of life, diverse employment, sense of place, community pride and geographically well-positioned.

“We are in good shape I am proud to say,” McCoy said.

He also shared labor and demographic statistics for the county.

Macon Commissioner Brian McClellan asked McCoy if a more specific strategy would be forthcoming.

“Could we expect some concrete suggestions as to what specifically we can do to further the process?” McClellan asked. “I would be more than willing to listen if you had some concrete ideas of A, B, C for ways we can help move everything forward.”

McCoy said those suggestions would be coming down the pipe in the next few months.

In Macon County’s dream world, it would become a hub of technology development companies. While theoretically far-fetched for a largely rural Appalachian region, Macon County’s proximity to Atlanta and the presence of a major software firm already, Drake Software, makes it plausible. Drake’s main tax software enterprise and several technology and computer subsidiaries under its domain has singled-handedly positioned Macon County to tout itself as a high-tech hotbed in the mountains.

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