03/15/07 — Duplin leaders consider strategy for economic development

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Duplin leaders consider strategy for economic development

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 15, 2007 1:53 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Unlike the give-and-take dialogue that was held with the county Board of Education Monday, the Duplin County Board of Commissioners spent most of its session with the county Economic Development Commission listening to suggestions that sounded a lot like those given to people wanting to grow their own businesses.

"We're looking long-term," economic development commission chairman and local businessman Pat Renfrow said, explaining that the board's going to have to make a serious investment in economic development -- infrastructure, manpower and property -- if it expects to see significant growth from both outside and existing industries.

He acknowledged, though, that doing so wouldn't be easy.

"It's a hard decision to make. I'm glad I'm not sitting over there," he told the commissioners. "But the money needs to be available on the baseline."

Formed in 1963, the county's economic development commission, director Woody Brinson explained, used to actually oversee and direct the economic development office. Since 2004, however, it has been reduced to more of an advisory role.

Returning the commission to its former capacity was the first topic of Monday's discussion.

"Personally, I think it'd be an excellent idea to go back to them being directly responsible for economic development," Brinson said. "It'd give them more responsibility to direct programs."

He and the commission also explained to the commissioners that in order for Duplin to keep growing, more staff will eventually be needed within the economic development office itself -- to help him recruit new industry and learn his networks, but also to help maintain and expand existing industries.

Commonly, Brinson said, 10 to 15 percent of new jobs come from recruitment of outside industries, 10 to 15 percent come from creation of new business within the community and 70 to 80 percent of new jobs come from the expansion of existing businesses.

"You have to take care of what you have or you don't deserve to get anything else," Brinson said. "If we want new jobs, 80 percent of our efforts should be spent with our existing businesses."

The new position also would be responsible for helping to get the county's two new economic development non-profit corporations off the ground.

But, Brinson stressed, contrary to recent discussions, those two organizations are not meant to take the place of the county's economic development office. They are only meant to supplement existing efforts, mainly through help with property acquisition and the construction of shell buildings.

Funds for the organizations -- likely in the neighborhood of $75,00 annually -- will come mainly from the tax-deductible contributions and membership dues of existing industries.

The economic development office, Brinson continued, needs $200,000 to $250,000 a year. Currently it is receiving about $175,000.

That money, he explained, would not only pay the cost of hiring a third employee, it also would replenish the county's infrastructure reserve fund, which the commissioners stopped contributing to about three years ago. Often, those dollars can be used to help extend water and sewer lines rather than relying on the county's fund balance, he said.

"If you're really serious about economic development, we've got to talk about increasing the county's contribution," Brinson said.

Economic development commission member and local businessman Grey Morgan added, though, Duplin County does have other things it can hang its hat on, such as its location and the many strategic corridors running through it, such as U.S. 40, U.S. 117, N.C. 24 and N.C. 903.

But, he continued, while it's not all about dollars, they are important pieces of the puzzle.

"Obviously we have some things here that are attractive, but we've got to make sure we're taking that pro-active, aggressive posture. Once (business and industry) come, we've got to be able to provide them a place to come with infrastructure," he said. "We can't sit around any longer and say why we can't compete. We've got to understand we've got to put some money up front to get some back."

But, like with their meeting with the school board, the commissioners held off making any decisions.

"I think we should think about it today and see what we're going to do with the non-profits and how we're going to get this other person on board and then decide what we're going to do," commissioner Zettie Williams said. "I think we need to get organized more."

Board chairman David Fussell added that there likely won't be any action taken on many of the recent discussions until it's time to pass a new budget.

"We have a lot of issues. I think this is real good to begin the communication process, but it's just the beginning," he said. "I believe we, the board of county commissioners, have decided we're going to relook at everything and make these decisions with the new budget based on the 79-cent tax rate."

But commissioner L.S. Guy hopes these discussions go beyond just the 2007-08 budget.

"We are made to listen and we should listen to all of this," he said. "Hopefully we're going to be putting all these suggestions into a strategic plan so we'll have guidance beyond this year."