Smithfield has a lot of potential. But if it wants to grow, the town must offer incentives to new business, foster housing for seniors and young professionals, and do what it can to improve its schools.
That’s the gist of a recent update to Smithfield’s Strategic Economic Development Plan.
“We find that Smithfield is a vital community, but it does face challenges,” said Rocky Lane, a managing partner at Sanford Holshouser Economic Development Consulting, which authored the update and the original plan 10 years ago.
Lane gave the Smithfield Town Council an overview of the update earlier this month. “The town can control its destiny by facing its challenges head on,” he said.
Mayor John Lampe said Smithfield residents should take the plan’s recommendations as suggestions worth considering, not as marching orders.
“It’s not designed as a road map of a future but as a starting point,” the mayor said.
The study derived its recommendations from a variety of data, including the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey. Here are some of its findings:
The largest industries in Smithfield are health care and social assistance, which employ nearly 17 percent of the town’s workforce. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects those industries will continue to grow 2.6 percent annually because of aging Baby Boomers. Smithfield’s other top employers are manufacturing, 16 percent; education, 11 percent; and retail, 9 percent.
Citing data from the American Community Survey, the update found that Smithfield has a low labor force participation rate. In 2012, just 4,350 of the town’s 10,874 residents had jobs. That’s a labor force participation rate of 40 percent, well below the national rate of nearly 63 percent. The update attributed the low participation rate to the large number of Smithfield residents who are 65 or older.
Mayor Lampe said he thinks the participation rate will climb as Smithfield becomes more of bedroom community for Raleigh. “I think we'll have people living here and raising their families here,” he said. But for that to happen, he said, the town’s public schools must improve.
Johnston Community College, which has its main campus in Smithfield, is a huge asset to the town, the report said. In both the 2004 Strategic Economic Development Plan and this year’s update, students rated JCC as excellent.
Most of those students live in Johnston County and have short commutes to campus. But some JCC programs, including truck driver training, attract students from outside of a reasonable driving distance, creating a demand for housing, the report said.
“Some institutions in the North Carolina system offer specialized, unique curricula that are not offered on any other campus,” the report stated. “JCC has one of those programs and therefore attracts students from beyond a reasonable commuting distance, creating a need for student housing. This is a unique opportunity for the town.”
The report recommended that town officials meet with JCC leaders to agree on ways to better promote what the college has to offer.
Smithfield’s low-performing public schools are an impediment to the town reaching its full potential, the report said. In 2012, Smithfield-Selma High School had the lowest SAT score among Johnston County high schools, the report noted.
If Smithfield wants to attract young families, then it must do everything it can to help raise academic performance at its two elementary schools, one middle school and high school, the report said.
Mayor Lampe agreed. “We have good roads, a good police force, a public library,” he said. The town also has the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center.
“People look at Smithfield, and they say it’s a nice place to live,” Lampe said. “Our greatest weakness is the school system.”
The report recommended that town leaders work with the Johnston County Board of Education to publicize the schools’ strengths while working on an improvement plan.
Tracey Peedin Jones, spokeswoman for the Johnston County schools, said she had note seen the town report. She released the following statement from Superintendent Ed Croom:
“Johnston County Schools has been working with town and community members in Selma and Smithfield. We are continuing to place additional resources in the Smithfield-Selma schools, such as dual language, etc. We will continue to work with community leaders to make the Smithfield-Selma community the best place it can possibly be."
Compared to Johnston County, the Triangle and the state, Smithfield has a higher percentage of renters than homeowners.
Lampe said he wants to see more home ownership.
“We need room for physical, geographic expansion,” he added. “Existing houses in Smithfield are for sale at really cheap numbers right now – too cheap.”
The report recommended Smithfield expand its housing options by identifying areas – such as downtown – that are suitable for development. Also, the town should do more to promote existing incentives for residential development, it said.
To cater to its older population, Smithfield should look into becoming a state Certified Retirement Community.
The town needs to do more to attract new businesses while providing support for existing ones, the report said. In response to the 2004 study, Smithfield established a business-outreach program that is now inactive. The report recommended starting it up again.
“The best, easiest, most effective money any organization or community can spend in terms of economic development is on an existing industry-outreach program,” the report said.
The report also recommended Smithfield adopts incentives to attract industry to town. Toward that end, Smithfield recently approved an incentive for existing businesses looking to expand within the town limits. Under the policy, a business can buy discounted electricity for up to five years based on the number of jobs it creates.