10/01/08 — Area experts: Wayne can wait out crisis

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Area experts: Wayne can wait out crisis

By Anessa Myers
Published in News on October 1, 2008 1:53 PM

The State of the Community address delivered Tuesday at City Hall "couldn't have come at a more opportune moment," Wayne County Development Alliance President Joanna Thompson said, referring to the financial crisis gripping the country.

The meeting was sponsored by the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce.

"We can only hope Congress gets it right, and capital can begin moving freely through our banks and businesses again," she told the gathering of about 50 business leaders.

Ms. Thompson said that locally there is some good news and some "not so good" news.

Part of the good news, she said is that businesses are still moving into the area.

"One need look no further than last week's news that Triangle Spring will open a $6.2 million manufacturing facility in Mount Olive, employing more than 100 people. Also in the last nine months, we've been able to welcome one of America's most hallowed corporations -- AT&T -- which has built a 350-job technical support center in Goldsboro," she said.

Ms. Thompson said that the weakening national economy hasn't been reflected in the county's project activity and that the alliance will continue to work with clients, consultants, the Eastern Region development organization and the state Department of Commerce to bring jobs and industry here.

"Global economics constantly amaze me. In the case of both AT&T and Triangle Spring, we were able to bring jobs back to the United States that many people had assumed were forever lost to low-wage destinations offshore," Ms. Thompson said. "In fact, we're finding that soaring transportation costs and the meager value of the U.S. dollar have actually led to renewed interest in communities like ours by both U.S. and foreign-based multinational corporations."

Wayne County has also been able to bring diversification of business to the area, she said, with that diversification being "the envy of many communities our size."

Plus, she added, some of the county's leading employers -- defense, consumer foods, health care, utilities and education -- are industries that don't have to "surf the extreme ups and downs of the business cycle."

On the other hand, the "not so good" news is that there are some signs of economic trouble in the county.

"Our county's unemployment rate has, in the past 12 months, surged by more than two percentage points -- from 4.6 percent a year ago to 6.7 percent today," she said, but added that the rate is lower that that of most counties in the region and lower than the state as a whole.

Still, she said, jobless rates are expected to rise, and the Wayne County workforce is a "rapidly graying" one.

"Our employers are finding it more and more difficult to replace the skill-sets and experience that are retiring from our workforce everyday," Mrs. Thompson said.

The solution to the graying workforce means that employers, educational institutions, economic developers and the workforce itself must work together and be cross-trained, she said.

And just as high gas prices might force companies to look at more locations locally, or set up shop in the vicinity, the cost of travel is also shrinking the workforce in the area.

"People can't afford a 60-mile round-trip daily commute anymore, at least not for many industrial jobs. ... Rising costs aren't new to any of you. All of us see it in every aspect of our lives. What is troubling is that increased expenses are hitting us just as our revenue sources are showing signs of strain."

Both the public and private sector are squeezed for funding, and she said, like everyone else, economic developers will be asked "to do more with less." But for the alliance, she said, it isn't a new challenge.

"We'll have to be more creative about our marketing, more innovative in the ways we add value for existing industries and more collaborative in how we find the capital to build new infrastructure," she said.

That may not be all bad, though.

"The pace of economic growth -- whether we're in a slowdown, pause or even the 'r' word, recession -- is not a question economic developers should obsess about," Mrs. Thompson said. "Our mission of job creation, wage growth and business development applies during periods of economic expansion and economic contraction. We always face challenges.

"When times are good, we run out of available buildings and our sources of labor dry up. When the economy is up, you might hear some people ask, 'Why are we spending on economic development? The economy is fine.' On the other hand, when times are tough, we have plenty of vacant buildings, sites and the qualified labor market is ready to serve. Whatever the future holds, our work continues."

She said she believes that Wayne County has made good investments in recent years, and that it is in a good position to weather "just about anything the national economy wants to throw at us."

Al Delia, president of the North Carolina's Eastern Region Development Commission, and Dr. Kenneth Stokes, dean of the Tillman School of Business at Mount Olive College, also had a few things to say about the economy, and what Wayne County could do to better it.

Delia said that he believes the key for the 13 counties in the region, and in particularly counties like Wayne, Wilson and Nash, is biotechnology and life science industries. With close proximity to Research Triangle Park and the lower cost of labor, land and facilities in the county, he believes the research sector should soon bear fruit, and Wayne will see some of the industries' spillover.

"We are ideally located to be the place where biotechnology takes place," he said.

In the short-term, Delia said that industries are at a reluctance to invest because of the national economy, "but it will pass, and we will see more than our share (of companies investing in the eastern region)."

He said that the county will always be a key part of the agricultural industry, but that tourism and boat building in the more coastal counties has started to dwindle.

So, to jump start that, the commission has started to look into geographic information systems for tourism so that visitors, and even county residents, can see what is available down the road.

"We are trying to attract and keep our own folks in the region," he said. "People aren't going to be able to spend money to go far away. ... If we advertise, they can have a world-class vacation just miles from their house."

He spoke of the expansions in military bases to come in the next few years in Jacksonville and Cherry Point, and how in military towns, the economy is always different.

"In military areas, the economy is up 20 to 25, almost 30, percent from national trends in spending," he said.

And with Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and large health care employment in the county, it won't be affected as dramatically as other areas are, since those industries are going to continue to operate at about the same levels.

"Generally, we are in a much better position to weather what may be coming," he said.

He expressed concern that at a time when many workers need re-training, Gov. Mike Easley has cut the budgets of community colleges by 2 percent.

"In my opinion, we have the best community college and the best university system in the country. The bad news is, for every point in unemployment, community college attendance goes up 5 percent. That's great news except the governor just cut community college spending ... In a time when we need to invest in worker education, we are doing the opposite thing."

Stokes said Wayne leaders need to be innovative. He said that after attending an economic conference in Europe, he realized that North Carolina needs to jump in the global economic circle.

"Europeans are looking for partners around the world," he said. "There needs to be a policy in place, a foundation, which will facilitate this process globally."

He suggested the need for more global education, getting the students to study abroad more and experience more innovative ideas and ways of doing things.

Universities need to be "truly multi-disciplinary" and "anchored with major research assets," he said.

To do that, though, there needs to be more public funding, and funding that isn't based on "outdated schemes and outdated formulas" -- most university funding is based on the previous year's attendance -- "but for global innovation."

He also suggested that there be a "global pipeline" to make it easy for the state to become involved with global companies.

"There's an enormous competition happening globally, and if we're not a part of that, it is going to be difficult to catch up, if not impossible," Stokes said. "There are huge export opportunities out there. We need to map the assets. We need to do innovative assessment surveys. We need to mine their databases and find opportunities, fill in the gaps."