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Jackson County starts up floundering economic commission in hopes of spurring job growth

Jackson County, two failed attempts to the contrary, looks poised to once again hold hands with the county’s four towns when it comes to crafting a new economic development strategy.

How this will actually look and play out isn’t yet known. Six months were allotted to hammer out the best method of attracting and keeping jobs in this hard-knock economy.

County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam expressed impatience with efforts to date on the issue. He told leaders from Jackson County, Sylva, Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills who gathered Monday night at his behest that time they might have used to undergird the local economy has been frittered away.

“We have everything in place and we need to decide where we want to go for a change instead of where we are going to be led,” Debnam said. “I feel like I’ve wasted my first year in office. I want to look back and say: ‘We got something accomplished.’”

Debnam, who ran and won in 2010 as an unaffiliated candidate, campaigned in part on promised future leadership for job retention and creation.

In name only Jackson County still has an Economic Development Commission. But County Manager Chuck Wooten indicated that it might be time even to change that.

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“I try to avoid using E-D-C, it has a bad connotation or bad vibration to many people in this community,” he said. “But we are at a point that we need to decide what our next steps are. Do we wish to activate it, do we wish to activate it in some other form, or do we wish to dissolve it.”


The strategy

Jackson County is paying Ridgetop Associates, which is the husband-wife team of David and Betty Huskins, $3,500 a month for six months to help them develop a strategy. The Huskins are primarily known for work in the tourism industry through the regional entity Smoky Mountain Host, but they have extensive experience in local government and economic development issues, too. Betty Huskins is currently at work on N.C. Tomorrow, a state economic development effort by regions that she said would dovetail nicely with Jackson County’s current push into that arena.

Among other duties, the couple has been hired to conduct a county economy assessment, listing what exactly — positive and negative — the county has in terms of economic development potential.

Mayor Jim Wallace of the Village of Forest Hills said he believes that’s critical: “We need a good catalogue of what we’ve got before we can move ahead.”

County Commissioner Doug Cody said that in meetings with BalsamWest FiberNET he’d learned that Jackson County is on par “with the level of Silicon Valley, Atlanta, any major urban network” in terms of connectivity speed.

But, Cody warned, that competitive advantage would last just three to five years before other rural areas in the nation catch up or surpass Jackson County. Bill Gibson of the Southwestern Development Commission went even further, asserting that Jackson County has “the best rural (fiber) backbone in the world,” but noted that the use is limited. “Because what we don’t have is off-ramps to businesses,” Gibson said.

In other words, the network exists for amazing connectivity, but BalsamWest isn’t or can’t make the technology available to everyday business Joes because of the “last mile” challenge — the short but often costly run of fiber from the trunk line to an industry’s front door.

Still, Cody said, the capability is there, and it being there enables Jackson County to look beyond such polluting development dinosaurs as “smokestack industries.”

Time is critical, Commissioner Charles Elders said.

“It’s kind of like a drag race. We’ve got a short time to get there and we’ve got to move through the gears,” he said.


The plan

Debnam, typically freewheeling in his comments, urged the county’s two towns — Webster and Forest Hills — that limit commercial development in their zoning laws to get on board the now moving train of economic development.

“We’ve built our little silos when times were good. But times aren’t so good now,” Debnam said, adding that everyone “needs to get off their butts” and start working together on job creation and retention.

“You’ve got to take a good look at what you’re doing to help Jackson County move along,” Debnam said.

Mayor Larry Phillips of Webster verbally supported the economic development efforts, though he did not speak directly to whether his town might consider removing some of its commercial restrictions.

“I think it’s great what we have heard and I’m very excited,” Phillips said. “Let’s get going on this … I just see all kinds of potential for Jackson County.”

Debnam indicated he would meet with the mayors from each of the four towns in coming days. The plan is to develop a five-year strategy to tackle economic development. Wooten indicated the county would likely move toward hiring someone in-house to oversee economic development.


Same tune, different verse?

Technically Jackson County has an Economic Development Commission. It exists in name only, however.

About four years ago a joint EDC formed by Jackson County and the four towns imploded amidst bureaucratic turf wars. The director resigned; the board quit meeting; members resigned one by one and replacements by the county and towns weren’t forthcoming.

It actually marked the second EDC meltdown in Jackson. The prior EDC fell apart in 2005 amid controversy and allegations of financial mismanagement.

There’s still money in the pot, though, a total of $425,000, which includes a transfer of $335,000 from the 2005 failed EDC plus money from each entity involved. Jackson County and the four towns were contributing $1 for each resident.

Here’s what each Jackson entity, percentage-wise, has “bought” in terms of equity for their contributions to the EDC pocketbook:

• Jackson County: $382,064.84, or 89.79 percent.

• Dillsboro: $2,850.91, or .67 percent.

• Forest Hills: $4,042.34, or .95 percent.

• Sylva: $29,743.10, or 6.99 percent.

• Webster: $6,808.15 or 1.60 percent.

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