05/08/09 — Chamber hosts panel on county, city's future

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Chamber hosts panel on county, city's future

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 8, 2009 1:46 PM

Wayne County has not been spared the effects of a faltering economy, but rather than dwell on the negative, speakers at Thursday morning's "State of the Community" panel discussion focused on the good news they could muster.

The topic for the event was "Wayne County Pushing Forward." It featured panelists County Manager Lee Smith, Goldsboro Mayor Pro-Tem Chuck Allen and Col. Mark Kelly, 4th Fighter Wing commander at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. It was the first of several such panel discussions being sponsored by the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce.

"Things are not looking good," Smith admitted. "With unemployment up, sales tax decreasing, you have got to give people hope, you have to give them a vision when they are living day-to-day."

There was some good news in Wayne County in 2008, he said, including 422 net new jobs, 102 new jobs and $31.6 million in new investment.

The county last week hosted its annual employee appreciation picnic. Smith said he had asked departments if it should be canceled because of the economy.

"The answer was no," he said. "It was a time for fellowship and for raising funds for the Relay For Life. Even with employees who are struggling they still managed to raise $2,000."

Smith said that over the past several years county officials have worked to position the county to survive a downturn in the economy. He said he is hopeful the county will not have to eliminate any jobs or require employees to take unpaid furloughs.

Could that change, he was asked.

"Yes, it could," he replied. "If the economy continues to develop we may be forced to take more drastic action."

Efforts continue to market the county, particularly through North Carolina's Eastern Region. Some people, he said, question the value of what industrial prospect trips accomplish. They accomplish jobs, Smith said.

Smith said the development of Spirit Aero Systems at the Global TransPark in Kinston could help Wane. The spin-off industries and suppliers, some of which could land here, that will just as valuable, if not more so, than Spirit itself, he noted.

Wayne also will need to continue its industrial recruitment efforts, including a new shell building of at least 100,000 square feet at the ParkEast Industrial Park, he said. Efforts continue to market the Mount Olive shell building, but larger buildings are in more demand, he said.

Wayne residents need to be aware that the laws governing the distribution of sales tax revenues will be changed from per capita to point of sale, making it even more important for county residents to spend their money in county, Smith emphasized.

Allen talked about a number of ongoing city projects, including the renovation of Union Station Union. He also pointed to some $10 million in private investments in the downtown area, including renovation of the old fire station.

The city also is looking at a number of street projects including extending Cashwell Drive, realigning Central Heights and Royall Avenue, adding a turn lane at the Target store and a fifth lane on North Berkeley Boulevard.

Work is under way on first part of the long-awaited U.S. 70 Goldsboro Bypass, he said.

"The bad news being there is no funding for the rest at least through 2013," Allen said.

The city has completed an utility master plan looking at city's needs over the next 25 years.

The city, he said has not has not been charging enough to make the water and it has a 52-year-old water plant and an old sewer plant.

Residents can expect to see "pretty significant rate increases" over the next few years, Allen said. That is on top of a proposed five-cent increase in the city tax rate.

Allen said the City Council last year had hoped for better times in 2009.

"Now, we don't know what to say about next year," he said.

Kelly told the audience that air base personnel have been involved in continuous combat operations for the for the past 18 years, from Desert Storm to Enduring Freedom. During the eight months that he has been wing commander, Kelly said, the base has deployed 18 F-15E's and crews and held a recent air show that attracted an estimated 100,000 people.

The base is in the process of putting up 21 shelters to protect aircraft from the elements as well as the airmen and their sophisticated electronic equipment. More will be purchased and installed in the coming year.

Kelly said a self-help/self-sufficiency program keeps repair work on the base rather than creating the added expense of having the work done elsewhere. The base also repairs engines for planes Langley Air Force Base, he added.

The Air Force's future, the colonel said, includes smaller combat aircraft, with the F-15E holding the line, more use of unmanned combat aircraft and unmanned aerial surveillance. Also, there will be more emphasis on defending against "cyber attacks."

The base is updating its radar and tower to replace one built in 1970s, Kelly said. Some operations that are now scattered across a number of buildings are being consolidated for convenience and buildings are being moved closer to the flight line, he said.

During the past year the base spent more than $15.7 million in county in just contracts, utility and purchases, he said.