NC Commerce Secretary’s ‘listening tour’ continues Monday in Hickory

dbracken@newsobserver.comSeptember 29, 2013 

  • N.C. Department of Commerce listening tour events

    Hickory: Monday, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., Hickory Metro Convention Center.

    Greenville: Monday, Oct. 7, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the Hendrix Theater, East Carolina University.

    Winston-Salem: Thursday, Oct. 24, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the Benton Convention Center.

    Details about the remaining October and November events will be released later. Residents can also submit comments online at http://www.nccommerce.com/news/listening-tours.

The recent budget passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory allows his administration to move forward with a major overhaul of the state’s economic development apparatus.

Up until now the public has had little opportunity to weigh in on the proposed changes, which include a plan to privatize major elements of the state’s economic development effort. That will change in the coming weeks as Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker and other administration officials go on a self-described “listening tour” around the state.

The first event, held in Durham on a recent Friday afternoon, drew about 150 people. The second is planned for Monday in Hickory.

“Ultimately it is a lot about listening,” said Josh Ellis, a Commerce Department spokesman. “ ... It’s not anything where we’re rolling out new initiatives.”

Ellis said Decker expects to get questions about the major initiatives already launched by Commerce, including the privatization of the department’s economic development efforts.

The budget allows the Commerce Department to spend $1 million to establish a public-private partnership. The partnership, which would use taxpayer money, would create the N.C. Economic Development Partnership and consolidate regional economic-development entities into new prosperity zones. McCrory administration officials say that such an organization can pay employees more and offer performance bonuses to compete with other states for top talent.

Decker is also likely to field questions about the creation of a new division to handle much of the work previously done by the state’s Rural Economic Development Center. Earlier this month Decker named Patricia Mitchell, a former Ashe County manager, to oversee the work as the state’s first assistant secretary for rural economic development.

The listening tour events are invitation-only but open to the press. Ellis said anyone not invited who wishes to attend can contact the department. The department also has a form on its website allowing residents to submit questions or provide other feedback.

Several hundred people – employers, municipal and county officials, tourism officials, education leaders, and state representatives – are being invited to each event. A total of eight are planned, one in each of the newly created “prosperity zones” in the state.

Decker is being joined on the tour by Tony Almeida, a senior McCrory adviser focused on jobs and the economy. The information from the events will be compiled and reviewed for inclusion in a new 10-year strategic plan being created by Decker and the N.C. Economic Development Board. The plan is expected to be completed by December.

Among the attendees at the Durham event was Dan Gerlach, president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, which gives economic development grants. He plans to attend the other seven events as well. Gerlach lauded Decker and other McCrory officials for getting out of Raleigh to hear from constituents.

“How can we make sure that we’re doing things in the best way? That’s what I got out of the first session,” Gerlach said of the tone of the Durham event.

Gerlach said the conversation in the Triangle and Charlotte – which are doing quite well economically compared with the rest of the state – are likely to be very different from those in more rural areas.

“I’m interested to see what the conversations are going to be when you get into Hickory, into Greenville and some of these other areas,” he said. “I believe there’s going to be a lot of participation. The people I work with out in those areas are not shy about sharing their views.”

Bracken: 919-829-4548; Twitter: @brackendavid

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