A well-known name in economic development in Smithfield is trading his town hat for a county one.
Chris Johnson, executive director of the Downtown Smithfield Development Corp., will become Johnston County’s director of economic development on Sept. 23. The county announced the hire last Wednesday.
Johnson has been head of the downtown Smithfield group for 13 years. He also serves on the county’s economic-development advisory board.
“I will be applying the same principles and the same passions that I’ve been applying to this job and apply it to the rest of the county,” he said.
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Johnson will replace Peggy Anderson, who came out of retirement to become part-time director on a contractual basis after Michael de Sherbinin retired. Anderson joined the county in 2009.
“I think Chris is going to do a very good job,” Anderson said, citing Johnson’s experience in economic development in Smithfield. “Having said that, there’s still a lot to learn.”
Anderson will continue working for the county on a contractual basis as needed and to finish projects currently in the works.
County Manager Rick Hester approached Johnson about the job a few months ago. Johnson had applied for the job after de Sherbinin retired, but the county decided to go with a part-time position at the time. Now that the county is ready for a full-time director, Hester said, he thought of Johnson because of his impressive resume and credentials.
Hester said a full-time position will allow for more outreach to industry and allow the director to work more closely with the county’s towns. Johnson will make $79,544 in his first year, he said.
Johnson said moving to the county was a hard decision because he loves his current job so much.
“There was never a day that I woke up not looking forward to coming to work,” he said.
Leaving became easier, Johnson said, once his board of directors agreed to name his administrative assistant, Sarah Edwards, as interim director of the downtown Smithfield group. Johnson said she is a tremendous asset who will do a good job.
“Had it not been for somebody like her there, it would have been extremely tough for me to walk away not knowing the organization was going to get taken care of,” Johnson said.
The downtown board will decide at its next meeting whether to open the position to applicants, said chairman Barry Long.
Long said he and his fellow board members will miss Johnson but are happy for his new opportunity.
“I expect that he will do an outstanding job for them as he has done for us,” Long said.
Johnson said he’s excited to start.
“I’m not going to come in with, ‘I’ve got all the answers, and I’m here to solve your problems,’ ” he said. “It’s going to take time.”
Johnson said he will first visit the county’s towns to meet with mayors, town managers and other officials. He said he wants to tailor economic development for individual communities.
“What may work in Kenly may not work in Benson,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s got their own separate needs and own plans.”
He will then develop a strategic plan for the whole county, focusing not just on bringing in new industry but also on maintaining current ones. If an industry has to consolidate its operations, Johnson said, “I want them to consolidate here and not consolidate in another state.”
Johnson said he will do for the county what he’s been doing for Smithfield.
“We have a great community and a great county,” he said. “And it’s going to be my job to let the rest of the world know about it.”