01/13/08 — Alliance sets stage for more growth

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Alliance sets stage for more growth

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 13, 2008 2:30 AM

By almost any measure, 2007 was a successful year for the Wayne County Development Alliance as it oversaw the announcements of more than 1,000 new jobs over the next five years.

But with the board of directors approving an ambitious set of new goals for 2008 this week, the nearly 2-year-old economic development organization isn't resting on its laurels.

"This is a very aggressive plan," said WCDA President Joanna Thompson. "However, economic development is competitive and if you're not aggressive, you're left out.

"We probably won't get it all done, but we are going to at least touch on everything. The important thing is that you have some direction."

Product development

Topping the list of priorities for the next 12 months is "product development" -- meaning the development of tangible, physical draws, such as industrial sites and shell buildings.

"You've got to have product in your community," Ms. Thompson explained. "That's your draw -- a site or a building. Typically workforce is the deciding factor, but you've got to have that draw."

In 2007, the alliance completed a study that looked for potential industrial sites throughout the county. Twelve were identified.

Now, she explained, it's time to begin making use of those results.

The goal is to control -- at least through purchasing options -- three sites by the end of the year.

"We're looking at which are the best three that have the best potential," she said. "We just don't know which three those are yet."

Along those same lines, the alliance also is hoping to begin discussions with surrounding counties about multi-jurisdictional industrial parks, which increase access to grants and allow for costs and benefits to be shared.

"We've had some informal conversations with leaders in other counties, and the response has been positive," Ms. Thompson said.

But available space alone isn't enough.

The alliance also will be working to develop a new shell building, likely in an existing industrial park (ParkEast or Mount Olive), and likely using the virtual shell building program it began investigating last year.

The virtual shell building program, Ms. Thompson noted, is not meant to take the place of actual construction. Rather, it's an interim step to allow companies to see a finished product without it actually being complete.

Also under the alliance's product development heading is the continuation of the Northern Wayne Initiative, which began in fall 2007 with an assessment of the economic development strengths and weaknesses of Eureka, Fremont and Pikeville.

Now the goal, Ms. Thompson explained, is to bring a joint task force together to begin addressing such issues as infrastructure and inter-town cooperation. But, first, now that Al Delia, president of North Carolina's Eastern Region, has agreed to facilitate the group, the three towns must each select their members.


To accomplish all this, however, especially the industrial sites and the shell buildings, the alliance needs money.

That's why Ms. Thompson is hoping the group can continue to improve its private donation program, the Impact Wayne Campaign.

In 2006, the alliance reached about 65 percent of its $300,000 annual goal. In 2007, it hit 75 percent. In 2008, the group is hoping to raise at least 50 percent more than it did last year from individuals and businesses in the county.

Such funds are all designated for incentives and product development. County funds are used only for operations, she explained.

"Our numbers are increasing, and our strategy this year is to say, look at the return on your investment from 2007. That's pretty darn good," Ms. Thompson said. "We want to make sure we don't lose out on an AT&T because we couldn't make an investment of $100,000 for 350 jobs."

Workforce, recruitment and marketing

But, she reiterated that while products and incentives are the draws, a community's workforce is often the clincher, and in 2008, the alliance also has plans to improve Wayne County's.

The first piece of that puzzle, she explained, is a goal that is being carried over from 2007 -- a workforce analysis and skills assessment survey.

"Workforce is the No. 1 factor in industry location," she said.

And so the goal of the survey is to figure out exactly what kind of workforce Wayne County has -- employed, unemployed and underemployed.

The more specific the data, the easier it will be to show it to specific industries.

"Once you have that workforce data, that definitely helps you in recruiting," she said.

And that flows right into the alliance's next goal -- the completion of a target industry analysis to identify high potential niche markets within broader industries.

For example, Ms. Thompson said, one reason Wayne County was successful in landing the aviation/aerospace corporation AAR, which will eventually employ about 500 people, is because of the skilled workforce coming out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Then, once that study is done, it and the workforce survey will be used to complete the next item on the 2008 schedule -- an updated and comprehensive marketing plan to help improve their ability to pro-actively recruit specific industries.

"We've got things we do that are marketing, but we always want to update our strategies," she said. "So you see, it all has to flow in a specific order. You define your workforce, identify you target industries and then you market to them. It's all connected.

"You have to keep updating yourself, who you are, what you can do for people and what makes sense for Wayne County going forward in 2008."

However, she cautioned people to not necessarily expect another banner year of job announcements in 2008.

She explained that often, when there has been a flurry of activity in an already tight labor -- Wayne County has been sitting at or below 5 percent unemployment for the last year, which is considered by many to be full employment -- interest by new companies will cool.

"Economic development is very cyclical," Ms. Thompson said. "Especially in a rural community like Wayne County where you don't have a huge workforce, years like '07 don't come in regular succession.

"It's been a few years since we've had a year like this, and I can't predict what's going to happen in '08.