Agency's planning at issue

Agency's planning at issue

Staff WriterJune 4, 2005 

When companies in Chatham County need water, sewer or a road easement, they often turn to the Chatham County Economic Development Corp.

Tony Tucker's group prides itself on handling local businesses' infrastructure needs, the nuts and bolts of industry.

"Folks, if you can't flush your toilet, you can just forget about it," Tucker, the group's president, is fond of saying.

But if consultants scouting new factory locations turn to the EDC's Web site for current information about the county, they're out of luck. As of Friday, the site's demographic data hadn't been updated since 2003 or earlier. Even the EDC's board of directors listing is outdated.

And in today's business climate, a snazzy Web site is "absolutely paramount," said Jonathan Q. Morgan, an economic development expert at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government.

"The folks that do this screening for commercial sites ... that's sort of their first cut," he said.

The outdated Web site may seem a small detail. But it points to the EDC's need for better planning, some county residents say, specifically a strategic plan with measurable goals the county can look to for years to come.

And as the EDC requests $235,395 for 2005-2006 43 percent more than this year some question whether the group is using its money wisely.

"They've been busy looking at larger industries," said former Commissioner Margaret Pollard, who sat on the EDC's board last year. "But most jobs are created by small industries."

The county currently relies on the 13-county Research Triangle Regional Partnership's plan to attract high-tech and other related jobs.

Charles Hayes, president and CEO of the partnership, said companies do look at regions first, but counties also should do their own planning. "I suspect Tony carries [the regional plan] with him, and that pretty much is his plan," he said.

Job creation

The EDC says it helped create 415 jobs in the county in 2004, based on Employment Security Commission data.

The actual number of private-industry jobs in the county grew by about 650 to 14,348 between September 2003 and September 2004, the most recent data available. That's double the Triangle region's rate for the period.

At the same time, manufacturing jobs grew 10 percent to 5,939 in Chatham, even as they shrank in the 13 counties by 585 jobs.

Average weekly wages in Chatham rose 6.6 percent double the region's rate.

Nobody knows how much of this would have happened without the EDC.

Tucker said he spends his day answering phones, mailing out demographic data about the county and working with small businesses.

"We have a lot of jobs created in this county," he said. "Most of them have come to us for support for some aid at some time."

Budget proposal

Chatham County gave the EDC about $165,000 this year. For next year, the county manager has recommended $170,502.

But the EDC has been supplementing its budget with reserve funds for years.

This year, it took $29,637.26 out of its reserve to help pay Tucker and his assistant, plus monthly payments on a Ford Explorer and expenses for an annual industry appreciation day, among other operating expenses.

Now, Tucker says, the kitty is almost gone.

"I don't travel outside for recruiting, we don't have the money for a direct mail fund," he said. "We have to have that money to keep the doors open."

For next year, the EDC is requesting enough money to continue operating at the same level, plus about $30,000 to market the county's planned 500-acre business park in Siler City. That figure was based on an advertising consultant's estimates, board Vice President Sam Adams said.

County Manager Charlie Horne, however, did not recommend funding. "It was excessive in terms of the overall budget from our perspective," he said.

Ben Loftsgaarden is an economic development consultant with Texas-based Angelou Economics, which is working to attract more military contractors to North Carolina. He said having a strategic plan can help EDC work smarter.

"It will make you use that money much more efficiently," Loftsgaarden said. "Most residents will support [a higher budget] wholeheartedly as long as you have a plan backing it up."

Staff writer Jessica Rocha can be reached at 932-2008 or jrocha@newsobserver.com.

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