07/13/14 — Looking back: Helms shares thoughts on development

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Looking back: Helms shares thoughts on development

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 13, 2014 1:50 AM

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Joanna Helms, president of the Wayne County Development Alliance, is leaving her position to pursue a job in economic development in Apex.

Joanna Helms measures the success of Wayne County economic development over the past 20 years not just in brick and mortar and jobs, but in the county's ability to remain successful in a vastly changed industry recruitment environment.

Mrs. Helms, who recently resigned after 14 years as president of the Wayne County Development Alliance to take a similar job in her hometown of Apex, sat down to offer a look back on her 21 years in the county and a look forward at the challenges ahead.

"I think the challenges for Wayne County are just sort of going to be the challenges for economic development in general," she said. "This business gets more and more competitive every day. It is just amazing when you think how well-positioned Wayne County is. We have a great program. We have sites and buildings and infrastructure and support.

"But still we fight and scratch and claw for every project that we can even get to consider us. The projects are just fewer and farther between. Other communities are stepping up. There are a lot more Wayne Counties out there and they are stepping up. So the competition is getting so much more fierce."

But Wayne enjoys strong leadership and private sector support, assets that not all communities have, she said.

During her tenure as president, Mrs. Helms helped to guide the evolution of the Alliance -- forged from the former county Economic Development Commission and the old Committees of 100.

"I became president in 2000 and that was one of the first things that I started thinking about, 'How can we merge all of these entities?'" she said. "That whole process was a lot of work by a lot of people in the county. That has worked beautifully for the last eight years."

She has watched the transition from paper-based information to an Internet-based process that has prompted the end to the traditional days-long visits that prospective business representatives once made.

"They spent some time in your community. But now, with the Internet, everything has changed. They can go online and find out all of the information. They don't have to visit to see the ground. They can do all of that online so they are qualifying or, in some cases, disqualifying us, and we don't even know it sometimes."

That is why it is important the Development Alliance, the county and Goldsboro have strong websites because they are going to be the area's first test, she said.

Another goal she was able to see accomplished was the addition of a full-time existing industry specialist.

Mrs. Helms said she had pushed for a full-time position despite some county officials suggesting the job only needed to be part-time.

Mike Haney was hired in 2005 to fill the position.

"It has reaped benefits over and over again. If you look at our stats from year to year to year, and this is a national stat, the majority of jobs created in any community are from existing business and industry. So why in the world would you not pay them as much attention, if not more attention, than the ones that might just be tire kickers?"

The county also has made great strides in work force development -- a key decision-making factor in a corporate location, she said.

"They want to know they can get the quality work force and the quantity of the work force because everybody has buildings and sites," Mrs. Helms said. "Everybody has a good place to live. Everybody has good roads and good water and sewer, so that's kind of an even playing field.

"What you don't have in a community that is equal is work force and labor. Certainly you can love everything about a community, but if the work force and labor piece is not there why would you put your business there?"

Mrs. Helms said she also is proud that she has remained in the county for 20 years considering the nature of the profession that sometimes has a reputation for being a revolving door.

She said she has a lot of counterparts who have been in four or five counties during the time she has been in one.

"That is a nice feeling -- to know that you have stayed somewhere and have a tenure and that you have been able to temper through the ebbs and flows," she said.

Mrs. Helms said that being able to bring in talented staff members and train them has been personally satisfying. Having such a dedicated and competent staff should make it easier for a new president, she said.

When asked to name a particular project that was especially proud to have been involved with, she said there were too many success stories to choose one. But then she added that she had to admit that she was especially happy with the work done to bring AAR to ParkEast.

It started when Mrs. Helms received a call that the state was looking for large building. Even though the county's 100,000-square-foot shell building was considered too small, she told the state it could be doubled in size.

"I said, 'Well, just don't forget me. If something changes in their criteria, just don't forget me,'" she said. "About a month went by and they called me back and said, 'You know what, we can't find anything across the state so we are going start looking at smaller buildings that can be expanded.'

"I said well, come see us because we have a great building that we can expand out pretty quickly. We have plenty of land out there.'"

It was about an 18-month process from the beginning phone call to the groundbreaking and during the process there were a few times when it looked as if it could fail, she said. There were a lot of pieces and the county looked to her to take the lead to get all of them together. But at the same time she had a lot of other things she had to work on as well.

The code name for the project was "Four Cats."

"I felt like I was herding cats the entire time I worked on that project," she said. "It was like herding cats, but when all of that came through and the job creation -- they were going to create 300 and some jobs, and they were going to make a huge investment -- it was perfect.

"It was everything that you would want as an economic developer -- a lot of jobs, a lot of investment, buying our shell building and expanding that shell building. Then a big corporate name in the aviation industry -- that was real special for me personally."