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Survey says … Business poll sets the stage for new day in Jackson economic strategy

fr econsurveyAfter several stumbling blocks, disbanded boards and departed directors, proponents of a Jackson County economic development program hope to soon be back on course.

The county has been without a functioning economic development commission or director for several years. An attempt to jumpstart an official county-sponsored economic development program four years ago barely got off the ground before it fizzled out, however. Its fate was blamed on a dysfunctional structure and lack of vision.

In the latest effort, the county has hired a consultant for $30,000 to develop an economic development strategy and recommendations. A survey of local business owners and government employees was intended to play a key role in the strategic plan, but the response was low. The results of that survey were released last week.

Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody hopes the report will lead to a re-grouping of a new economic development board.

“We’ve been sitting dead in the water for five years in terms of aggressively pursuing economic development, while our neighbors have been taking advantage of the situation,” Cody said.

But even the survey had its hiccups.

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The results were announced at a public meeting last week before several local business leaders and county officials. Of more than 400 surveys sent out, about 80 people responded, but nearly 20 of those worked for government agencies. County Manager Chuck Wooten admitted the response rate wasn’t great.

“The tendency is unless you can be encouraged then eight out of 10 people hit the delete button — that’s the sad part,” Wooten said. “We could probably go back, start a campaign and increase results, but it’s hard to have a single survey that addresses the concerns of every business.”

Of the 80 who responded, about a quarter were not businesses at all, with respondents ranging from the county planning director and the mayor of Sylva to the Sylva Garden Club and Western Carolina University. Even the consultant hired to do the study filled out a survey.

Though not comprehensive, Wooten said the results nonetheless offered insight into what local business owners need from the county to succeed.

The greatest gripes on the survey were related to taxes and spending.

Ironically, another common suggestion on the survey was for the county to provide more services, promote local tourism and businesses, and further develop infrastructure — endeavors that would undoubtedly require more government spending.

The call for lower taxes from some of the local businesses caught at least one Jackson County Commissioner off guard. Cody brought up the fact that Jackson County has one of the lowest tax rates in the state and said maybe the county was more of an innocent bystander, catching some flack for state taxes.

“As far as lower taxes, if you asked 100 people, 99 will say they want lower taxes – that’s a standard answer,” Cody said. “If you asked people if they would not like to pay any taxes at all, they would probably agree with that, too.”

Another complaint identified in the survey results, mainly voiced by local building companies, was the permitting process and what they identified as overly burdensome regulations, including construction.

Cody said the planning department is already moving toward a more efficient one-step permitting process. Meanwhile, a county ordinance regulating construction on slopes is under revision with the planning board and has been a constant point of contention between the building industry and county officials.

The survey was sent out through the membership of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, although the study was not affiliated with the chamber.

But even Chamber of Commerce Board Chairwoman Heather Baker said some of the information taken from the survey may be taken out of context, for example the question about whether a business owner had plans for expansion.

The results of the questionnaire showed 61 percent of respondents had no plans for expansion or were not certain about current expansion plans.

Baker, who works with a law firm but also as a self-employed Avon representative, said the question would never apply to her, nor perhaps a town board member taking the survey, but the results could be construed to demonstrate a stagnate business climate in the county.

“There’s no way I would ever expand because it’s just me,” Baker said. “But seeing how the results were displayed, I see that my answers are probably taken in a different way.”

The survey showed that a slight majority of the entities surveyed in Jackson County employ between one and five people — affirming the small business make-up of the county’s economy.

About 20 percent of the businesses who responded were hospitality and leisure businesses and nearly 40 percent classified their businesses as “other,” which tended to be local government, real estate and miscellaneous business services.

Many of the larger corporations and chain businesses present in Jackson County did not participate.

The county paid about $30,000 for the survey and economic strategy plan being developed by David and Betty Huskins of Ridgetop Associates, a public relations and consulting firm. A majority of the cost was footed by federal and private grants. A similar survey targeting businesses in Cashiers was also conducted, and its results were released a week before the countywide survey.

The results of both surveys will be incorporated into a larger economic report put together by the county’s unofficial economic committee. The report should be ready in November, Wooten said, and include more in-depth statistics and recommendations to re-establish an official economic development board and perhaps hire a director.

The most recent board fell into oblivion about four years ago. At the time, the EDC director resigned, calling the county’s entire EDC set-up dysfunctional and lacking vision. Several EDC board members also resigned, and what was left of the board simply ceased meeting.

Wooten espoused the many sectors in the county that could stand to benefit from guidance of an economic development plan.

The list included expanding the airport to cater to Harrah’s Casino visitors; emphasizing Jackson County as a premier tourism destination; increasing train-oriented tourism; and attracting companies with the county’s educational assets such as Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University.

Although, after a history of disappointments with the former economic development boards and directors, if the board is re-assembled, Wooten said he may suggest a name change.

“Maybe we’ll call it Jackson Tomorrow,” Wooten said.

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