Smithfield Herald

Johnston County to create economic development plan

The county will craft an economic-development plan that recognizes that not all Johnston towns are the same.

At their meeting last week, County Commissioners agreed to hammer out a set of “strategic action items,” essentially a road map for the county’s economic-development office to follow. Chris Johnson, head of the office, has wanted a road map since starting his job last September.

“Johnston County is really two counties,” Johnson told commissioners on Monday.

For instance, one day he might be working with a company that brings jobs at $12 an hour to Pine Level. “That’s huge for the town of Pine Level,” Johnson said. “It’s a huge business in the sense that it means a lot to that community. However, it may not show up on the radar the closer you get to Raleigh.”

That’s because the big drug companies near Clayton are paying their employees $60,000 to $70,000 a year, he said.

“Which one is more important to Johnston County?” Johnson asked. “Well, it depends on which community you look at.”

Johnson hopes to have the plan finished by mid-May. It will look at each community and the county overall. At Johnson’s recommendation, commissioners hired Ted Abernathy for $9,500 to draft the plan. He will create a 10- to 20-page document outlining specific action items.

Abernathy said he plans to first get feedback from commissioners. Once he has a list of stakeholders, such as towns, chambers of commerce and business owners, he will interview people and research the local economy.

Abernathy is familiar with the area and recently did a similar project for the N.C. Economic Development Board. He has also worked with chambers of commerce in Johnston County.

Abernathy said economic-development plans tend to have three focuses. The first is product development, which looks at the available workforce and existing buildings and business sites. The second is marketing, or promoting an area’s assets to potential employers. The third is the “transactional piece,” which looks at how to bring people and businesses to an area.

The last part focuses on what kind of incentives to offer companies; recently, Johnston County has been giving property-tax rebates to new companies that meet hiring and investment targets.

Abernathy said the plan will look about three years ahead. “In the end, it will be a list of things that are both a reach and also reachable,” he said.

Johnson wants to focus also on keeping the businesses that are already in Johnston. And he wants others to use the plan to evaluate how he does his job.

Commissioners’ Chairman Jeff Carver said the board wants to focus anew on economic development now that the economy is improving. “Some of our citizens thought we’d allowed economic development to kind of just fade away,” he said. “Well we didn’t. We were trying to control expenses and get back to a 15-percent fund balance.

“Now is a time to have the road map for the future.”