Choices coming up on economic development for county
Companies want to see a long term plan before committing to Union County. That was one of the points highlighted in the evaluation of the county’s economic development section Friday, Jan. 20, done by members of the North Carolina School of Government.
Building on a study developed earlier this year by Wingate University, county commissioners last fall agreed to pay up to $20,000 for professors Will Lambe and Jonathan Morgan to give different options for the county to explore. Currently, Union County contracts with the Monroe based Partnership for Progress company to help stimulate economic development. That contract expires July 31 and with the company’s director, Maurice Ewing, stepping down, the board wanted to look at other ways to possibly spur on commercial growth.
As they interviewed 18 business owners and other stakeholders, Lambe said he and Morgan kept getting one answer, over and over.
“People didn’t know what the long term strategic plan for the county’s economic development was,” Lambe, head of the School of Government’s Community and Economic Development program, said. “(They wondered) why is the county the only real dog in the fight?”
Partnership for Progress had a budget of $640,000 last year, Lambe said, with 90 percent of that coming from government grants. In a presentation to county commissioners in December, then Partnership president Maurice Ewing said the company generated 75 client inquiries during that period, with 20 to 25 currently active. Out of that, Partnership for Progress gets 45 percent of its leads from the Charlotte Regional Partnership, with 13 percent self generated.
“People seemed to believe the public-private partnership model is appropriate for Union County,” Lambe said. “There was a sense this model separates economic development from the day to day of local government. The major shortcoming was this issue of accountability,” Lambe said. “We have board leadership from the private sector, but seem to be wanting for a greater financial commitment.”
Lambe outlined the different options county commissioners could chose from, when determining how to shape economic development in Union. They could create an economic development department, such as York, South Carolina operates. Lambe pointed out that York generated 1200 new jobs, but that an in-house economic development group couldn’t provide loan guarantees for private debt. Also York County had a $525,000 budget for the department.
Another option for the county would be to establish an economic commission. Gaston County currently uses this option, with a $1.1 million a year budget. The only catch, Lambe told commissioners, is that they wouldn’t be able to buy land, if they created a commission.
The other option was to farm out the work completely to a nonprofit entity, much like what the county does with Partnership for Progress now.
Currently, Union County pays $2.9 million a year for economic development. That includes $507,646 for in-house planning, $1 million to the Cooperative Extension, $78,937 for soil conservation, $1.2 million to Partnership for Progress and $78,758 for outside agency help.
“There is no single best way,” Morgan said. “A lot of it has to do about how you go about implementing the structure.”
Lambe also proposed different ways of getting the towns involved, such as property tax revenue sharing. Towns would split the cost of incentives and then split the money.
“You have to create a structure that allows each town to put skin in the game and see what their investment brings,” Lambe said. “The property tax from projects would be shared with other communities. Projects can do where they go, everybody benefits.”
Lambe also suggested that the county consider the option of merging their economic development arm with the city of Monroe’s department.
County commissioners said they want the county’s role in any agreement to be clearly defined. If the county pays 50 percent of the needs, then it’s a partnership, county commission vice chair Todd Johnson said. Otherwise, it’s no different than the county having its own department.
Commission chair Jerry Simpson echoed Johnston’s response, saying that the county needs to provide the resources and let the towns decide things on their own.
“We need to provide the infrastructure,” Simpson said. “Ultimately, we’re accountable to all the taxpayers.”
The previous study, done by Wingate University, found that Union County’s current tax status is 84.9 percent residential and 15 percent commercial. Out of counties of similar size and population across the state, that ranks as the third highest amount of residential, next to Harnett’s 87.2 percent and Chatham’s 85.3 percent.
Last year, the Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study to determine how to balance a good quality of life for Union with the constant growth. The study found more residential buildings require more services.
That study suggested Union County focus on expanding through six specific industries. That includes advanced materials, aerospace, medical products, building products, e-commerce retail and a data center. Advanced materials was the field highlighted as the one with the most potential. By adding 100 workers in the field, Union would see an influx of $139 million.
“I think where we went off the track, when we set down this road five years ago, I don’t think there was a defined goal,” county commission member Tracey Kuehler said. “We just kinda said here you go and everybody went out and it didn’t necessarily come together in the right way for everyone involved.”