01/14/11 — Military, tourism economic stimulants

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Military, tourism economic stimulants

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 14, 2011 1:46 PM

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Wayne County Commissioner Andy Anderson, right, talks with Linda A. Carlisle, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Ms. Carlisle was one of several speakers at North Carolina's Eastern Region fourth annual State of the Region conference Thursday in Greenville.

GREENVILLE -- Protecting and promoting its military presence and developing its defense and aerospace industries along with its tourism are both challenges and opportunities facing North Carolina's Eastern Region -- an area that is beginning to experience some recovery from the recession.

That was the message of speaker after speaker Thursday morning during the fourth annual State of the Region conference sponsored by the Eastern Region -- one of the state's seven economic development organizations. The region is made up of 13 eastern counties, including Wayne.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan was the keynote speaker at the event held at the Greenville Hilton that attracted more than 400 people, including local and state elected officials and economic development officials.

John Chaffee, president and CEO of the Eastern Region Development Commission, delivered the state of the region report. He said that the commission had worked to develop a short list of what needs to be done to promote economic development in the East.

While the region's economy has suffered along with the rest of the state and nation, Chaffee said it has seen some improvement in the unemployment rate. However, he reminded attendees that the rate can be skewed when people stop looking for work. The rate can be down, but just as many people can still be out of work, he said.

"It (economy) got really bad in 2009," he said. "The good news -- we have started seeing unemployment rates drop and we have seen an employment uptick in our region over the past year. Unemployment rates are down and employment is beginning to turn upward. We are still struggling a little bit in terms of our travel and tourism, but we have seen that trend reverse itself. We believe we have turned the corner there as well.

"Per capita income is one of the important measures to see that we may be creating jobs, but are we creating quality jobs? Are we actually elevating people? And we are. We are seeing ourselves move up (in per capita) relative to the state of North Carolina, but we are still way behind the curve in terms of the U.S. average. Part of that is in terms of the cost of living indices and living in a place that is a lower-in-cost place to live so it does not take as much income as it does in other states or regions of the country."

Chaffee called the military presence in the region "absolutely enormous" and a "tremendous generator" in the terms of job creation.

In fact, growth in the state's military is part of the driving force behind the unemployment rate decline in the eastern part of the region, he said.

The region also benefits from having the colleges and community colleges that ensure that it can provide and sustain the trained work force needed for the high-tech jobs in the growth areas of the defense and aerospace industry, he said.

It is important, too, that the region be aware of threats posed to military installations. One of the major threats is the "march-to-the-sea" development that is increasing the state's population density in areas that have been mainly rural, said Mark Sutherland, executive director of the commission's Military Growth Task Force.

The military fares better in a more rural setting because of its demands on space, including air space. For example, the available air space for the Cherry Point Marine Air Station has shrunk by 85 percent over the past 50 years, he said.

The region must demonstrate it can sustain any growth in the area's military since 47 percent of military growth east of the Mississippi River has been in eastern North Carolina, he noted.

Chaffee said the region is working to promote its status as the place for aerospace by participating in events like the Paris and London air shows.

"A lot of attention is being brought to us because of Spirit (Aero Systems in Kinston)," he said. "There is huge recognition globally because of this company in eastern North Carolina."

He said that the aerospace industry has had a presence in the state for 15 years or more, but that it had been widely dispersed and not in a tight cluster.

Complementing the aerospace industry is the emerging biofuels industry, he said. That fuel source is of particular interest to the military because it is under a mandate that by 2020 that 50 percent of its fuel requirements must be from renewable energy sources, Chaffee said.

Agriculture and farming comprise another of the region's largest and most valuable assets, he said.

Tourism is big business as well and the region must look at ways to promote tourism to get more people into the region, he said.

While excited about the aerospace industry, agriculture remains a mainstay of the region's economy, Mrs. Hagan said.

"North Carolina's agriculture is a $74 billion economy and employs close to one-fifth of the state's workers," she said. "We all know how important the pork and poultry industry are to our part of the state."

Sen. Hagan said that agri-tourism is a unique way to keep farmland as farmland. She cited as examples Mike's Farm near Beulaville and Duplin Winery at Rose Hill with its tastings, tours and dinner theaters.

Linda Carlisle, secretary of the state Department of Cultural Resources, said that North Carolina is ranked by Forbes magazine as third best in the nation for business, fourth in the nation for job creation and fifth in personal income growth. That demonstrates that the state is doing something right, she said. However, there are still too many people unemployed and more remains to be done and the state must look at every resource available to it, she said.

Ms. Carlisle said that she sees tourism as one of those resources. She said her department is working to develop and enhance the state's tourism infrastructure.

"We often talk about our physical infrastructure," she said. "We know about the need for water lines and sewer. It is sometimes easy for us to overlook, take for granted or put aside, the community infrastructure.

"When individuals are looking to move, when companies are looking to relocate as John said it is a first impression. They are going to look to decide is this a community where I can see myself, my family, my potential employees wanting to live."

North Carolina ranks 10th in cultural and heritage tourism, something that Ms. Carlisle said she would like to see improve.

"We have to ensure that every community large and small is capitalizing on its resources and positioning themselves to be the kind of place where people look around and say, 'Yes I can see myself living here... is this a community where I can attract employees,'" she said.

Another challenge for the region is that it is not unified, but is very diverse -- some areas are driven by tourism, while others are driven by the military, Chaffee said.

"Part of our challenge in terms of regional economic development is how do we capture this and actually promote segmented economic development throughout our region and still capitalize on opportunities that benefit all of us," he said.

In her comments, Mrs. Hagan said that jobs are her number one priority.

"I think we have got to work together to bring more jobs to this region. I know things are tough across our state. More than 440,000 are out of work and unemployment in the counties in this region is anywhere from 7.9 percent to 14.6 percent. Small business owners are struggling ... families are struggling just to make ends meet."

She promised to work to help ensure the state will be able to compete for and win military contracts. She said that although 35 percent of the state's residents are either in the military, a veteran or a dependent of someone connected to the military, the state ranks only 26th in the nation in the number of military contracts it gets.

Mrs. Hagan said that she wants to work with Seymour Johnson Air Force Base on the infrastructure requirements necessary to compete for future aerial tankers and squadrons which would have a major positive effect on state companies serving as subcontractors and suppliers.

"We need to bring military, education, industry leaders to meet emerging military needs in order to grow jobs in the region," she said.