05/20/07 — Brinson says Duplin decision will stall development

View Archive

Brinson says Duplin decision will stall development

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on May 20, 2007 2:01 AM

After the Duplin County commissioners' recent decision to limit the county's involvement in economic development efforts, the county's economic development director said several industries have already speculated that they might not locate or stay in Duplin.

"I've already been told by one prospect that they will back out if they don't change their decision," Duplin Economic Development Department director Woody Brinson said.

The motion, which was approved through a majority decision by commissioners David Fussell, Cary Turner and Harold Raynor May 7, requests that the county "eliminate all funding, except for the secretarial position and debt obligation, for our current economic development department effective June 30." Commissioners L.S. Guy and Reginald Wells voted against the motion. Commissioner Zettie Williams could not attend the meeting.

The motion also authorizes the county to designate up to $75,000 to seek a contract with an outside economic development agency. That agency would be used to help the county make the transition to an economic development organization that relies on two existing non-profit corporations -- the Duplin County Economic Development Foundation and the Duplin County Economic Development Corp.

Under the commissioners' plan, Fussell said one non-profit, the Duplin County Development Foundation, would serve as a fundraiser for economic development through the contributions of private investors. The other organization would be the driving force behind economic development in Duplin.

The secretarial position would act as a transition for the organizations, while the $75,000 would be used to help get operations under way and secure seats on the non-profits' executive board.

According to the non-profits' bylaws, the largest contributors obtain the most board seats. But Brinson said the county government still would not have control over how the organizations operate and spend money.

"The commissioners have no control over these non-profits. They can't tell them who their officers are or how to handle their money," Brinson said. "They gave them authority with no checks and balances in place."

Duplin's two non-profit organizations were intended to only supplement the economic development department -- not to take its place, Brinson said.

Instead, Brinson said he hoped Duplin's economic development efforts would be molded after Wayne County's recent changes. In Wayne, the Goldsboro Committee of 100 and Mount Olive Committee of 100 merged with the Economic Development Commission last year to form the Wayne County Development Alliance.

The Alliance receives county funding for operational costs, and private investors help cover all other economic development expenses, President Joanna Thompson said.

Fussell said he believes the change to two non-profits will help the county financially, removing the need for financing the economic development department.

The commissioners charged County Manager Mike Aldridge with the task of lowering the county's property tax rate from 80.5 cents to 79 cents per $100 valuation, while not spending more than $1.85 million out of the county's fund balance reserve to balance the budget.

After Raynor submitted the motion to revamp economic development efforts, he said his goal was to improve the county's financial health.

"When we were put in office, our job was to bring the economy of the county back in good financial standing," Raynor said.

He added that he didn't believe the change would have any negative impact on Duplin's economic development efforts.

But Brinson said he has already received calls that tell him otherwise.

Potential and existing industries see the decision as a message from county officials that they don't care about future economic development efforts, Brinson said.

"We will lose several businesses because of this," he added.

Brinson said he believes the decision came at the worst possible time in Duplin's development.

"We've had more clients in the past three years than in the past 23 that I've been here," he said.

The commissioners' decision to place economic development authority in the hands of the two non-profits also could have several effects on the existing economic development department, Brinson said.

Before the commissioners made their decision, Brinson informed the board that he would retire effective January 2008. The decision to limit the economic development department's actions will make Brinson's job obsolete July 1. That, in turn, will affect 10 percent of Brinson's retirement earnings.

And since Brinson's effectiveness as a leader of Duplin's economic development department is limited to the next two months, he said there is little he can or will do to prepare the county for the future.

"Why would we want to help lessen the burden? They told us through their actions that our opinion doesn't matter to them," Brinson said.

Brinson said the issue began when the commissioners asked the economic development board in March to develop a plan on how to restructure the department and make it run more efficiently.

Since that assignment was given, Brinson said the economic development board has meet three times, and members were prepared to give their recommendation to the commissioners on May 21. Due to the commissioners' decision, Brinson said he isn't sure if that meeting will take place.

But Fussell said the issue began long before March. A strategic planning committee was formed to develop plans on how to improve the county's economic vitality and other facets of county government.

The committee's recommendation, which was approved by the commissioners in 2002 and again in 2004, suggested that the county steer away from being fully involved in economic development efforts and allow non-profit organizations to take the reins, Fussell said.

Although the recommendations were approved by the commissioners twice, Fussell said the policies were not implemented by Brinson and the economic development department.

"Every three or four months since 2004, we said it was time to implement the non-profits and Brinson always said he was too busy," Fussell said.

Brinson said he was always too busy because he did not have sufficient manpower to handle dealings with potential and existing industries and beginning a fundraising campaign for the non-profit organizations. The issue became worse when the commissioners fired the department's assistant director in 2004 and did not replace the position.

"One EDC chair and a secretary can't put together a fundraising drive," Brinson said.

He added that he understands the county must find a way to reduce spending, but taking away from the county's economic development department is not the answer.

"This will only replace county money (put into the department). It may lessen their burden, but it won't help build new shell buildings, buy land and bring in new industries," Brinson said.