12/09/08 — Governor-elect meets with business leaders

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Governor-elect meets with business leaders

By Steve Herring
Published in News on December 9, 2008 1:46 PM

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Gov.-elect Beverly Perdue, right, confers with friend and adviser Billy Ray Hall after her Monday morning roundtable discussion on rural development.

GREENVILLE -- Gov.-elect Beverly Perdue's "listen and learn" series of roundtable meetings with business, education and community leaders to gather suggestions on how to address the state's pressing issues made a stop Monday morning in Greenville, where she received an earful about education, infrastructure, economic development and agriculture.

Monday's meeting focused on rural development and Ms. Perdue had called on longtime friend and adviser Billy Ray Hall, president of the N.C. Rural Center, to organize the meeting because of his ties to the eastern part of the state. Hall, a native of Mount Olive, said his role in the meeting was as a volunteer and not a function of his office.

Other issues brought to Ms. Perdue's attention included more state support for homeless shelters, developing a strategy for rural counties, the need to improve the slow response time from state agencies, green energy, bio-technology, support for the state's military and the need for a dental school at East Carolina University.

The results of the meeting, and the others she is holding across the state, will be compiled for Ms. Perdue and her team to look at as she moves into office.

Ms. Perdue, who will meet with the banking community later this week on the state's mortgage and foreclosure crisis, said the sessions would continue after she takes office.

During the session and in a brief news conference following the meeting, Ms. Perdue appeared upbeat about the ability of the state and nation to weather the current economic crisis.

Ms. Perdue said she is "very confident" the county will have a stimulus package in place shortly after President-elect Barack Obama takes office, and she hinted that she is working on her own stimulus package for the state.

"I intend to be a partner with the federal government," she said. "I don't believe that is a bailout or a handout, I believe it is a way to build a new economy and put our people back to work."

Ms. Perdue said she looks forward to working to reinvigorate economic development, but was also quick to point out that she is inheriting a state budget that could be hit by up to a $2 billion shortfall.

No one knows what the figure will be, she told the media.

"I have been very direct with people telling them I am going to have to make some tough choices. I probably heard several billion, possibly hundreds of billions of dollars of wants today," she said.

She added that the state cannot possibly grant every item on every region's wish list.

"But I am going to prioritize," she said. "It starts with education so our workers can compete in the 21st Century. You have got to have job creation."

Ms. Perdue said she has a time frame in mind in which she might spend possibly 40 percent of her time on the budget and 60 percent on core economic development and education.

"Wherever you go people are talking about the priorities of North Carolina, what the infrastructure issues are, how we meet those needs," she said. "I have not had a meeting yet where they didn't talk about dropouts, the time and capacity of community colleges to retrain and budget shortfalls. All of the sessions have talked about the economy, and the challenge from Wall Street to Main Street. What I heard here today is no different than in a rural community in the west or a rural community outside of Char-lotte or Winston-Salem. It is all over the state. Folks need some help with roads and bridges and basic infrastructure money."

And with a rising unemployment rate, money for training is critical," she added.

"I heard the community college folks in there say it is an inverted curve.... when they need money the most to train people who have been displaced and need to get new job training there is no money for this. In a time of great budget challenges I understand from what I am hearing from people across North Carolina what the real priorities have to be."

The group had met privately for about an hour prior to Ms. Perdue's arrival to map out the course of the meeting.

"I thought it was important for the group to sort of think about the eastern region in terms of what is actually happening today with the numbers and opportunities for job growth as well as this recession that is playing its way out through the economy," Hall said.

Hall said Rick Newander, dean of the East Carolina University business school, gave a "great overview" of the economy and Leonard Kulik, assistant director for the North Carolina Eastern Region, had provided an overview of opportunities for job growth.

During his comments to Ms. Perdue, Newander spoke about infrastructure needs that transcend the traditional to include technology and education.

He noted that East Carolina University is leader in the state in business education and that up to three-fourths of the university's MBA students are getting their degrees online.

"However, we have a significant number of students who live where they cannot get high-speed Internet," he said. "It is not a matter of cost, but of availability."

Newander said the state must ensure access to high-speed Internet so its citizens can be productive, knowledgeable and learn about science and math.

Without that they "will be left in the dust," he said.

Norma Turnage of Rocky Mount, a member of the state Community College Board, said the state must work to keep students in school.

"We have a basic problem in dropouts in that it is a larger problem than schools -- it is a family and environmental problem. We cannot have a viable work force unless we have students in school."

Jordan Whichard III, chairman of the N.C. Economic Development Board, said education and work force development have always been North Carolina's first and most important investment.

He agreed that infrastructure is a key, including high-speed Internet, but that affordable water and sewer are vital.

"Poor eastern North Carolina communities, rural communities all over the state, have a real challenge in their ability to pay for that (water and sewer) infrastructure so the state needs to develop programs to help," he said.

Whichard also supports the concept of regional development hubs. He suggested a study to focus on regions perhaps of counties surrounding areas such as Greenville.

Local farmer Lawrence Davenport said the Golden Leaf Foundation is one of the solutions. It, he said, already has put "a lot of money" in worker training including $3 million in East Carolina University over past two years.

"Agriculture is a $74 billion industry in the state, but we in agriculture sometimes think we are taken for granted," he said.

In response to comments about finding ways to help small businesses, such as job or tax credits, Ms. Perdue agreed that the state needed to create an environment for small businesses while bringing in the "gorillas" of business.