Time to find a better fit

Published 9:37 pm Friday, August 31, 2007

By Staff
Beaufort County commissioners are right to look for another regional economic-development group to join.
Enough changes have taken place in the county and the Northeastern North Carolina Regional Development Commission to prove that a continued partnership could become the economic equivalent of trying to fit Cinderella’s glass slipper on the foot of one of her stepsisters.
While it’s clear that the economic-development group and county want to see the area prosper, their methods of getting there, at least at the moment, are fundamentally different. Add to that the reality that Beaufort County has calling cards its northeast neighbors don’t, and it’s easy to see why a partnership with North Carolina’s Eastern Region, a 13-county alliance that includes Pitt and Craven counties, would make sense.
North Carolina’s Northeast Commission, the shortened name for the 16-county economic-development partnership that Beaufort County is currently part of, was created by the General Assembly nearly 15 years ago to bring growth and development to the northeast corner of the state. Revamped and renamed after a 2006 state audit found the group (then called the Northeast Partnership) had mishandled millions, the commission, it is hoped, is on a better track. It intends to emphasize industrial and commercial planning that’s appropriate for the region, tourism promotion that would increase bus traffic in Washington and support existing businesses by getting behind educational opportunities. All of that is wonderful and may well pay off in spades in the long term.
But Beaufort County has already found a method — an immediate path — that is working toward success. The shell or “spec” buildings here have brought firms to Beaufort County. When a company is looking to expand its operations, having a ready-made place for it to land will almost always put one county ahead of its competitors in wooing that business. Beaufort County’s success in that endeavor is “quantifiable,” as Commissioner Al Klemm likes to say.
So Beaufort County asked the commission in April to begin financing spec buildings here and throughout the 16-county area. But commission leader Vann Rogerson said Wednesday night that while the group will be glad to market Beaufort County, it doesn’t “do bricks and mortar.”
That’s fine. And none of the other counties in the northeast group is complaining about that approach. But it doesn’t mesh with what Beaufort County needs anymore.
Tom Richter, the mayor of Washington Park and president of the Beaufort County Committee of 100, said there is a noticeable drop in “contacts” the county has when there is no space available for new businesses.
But Rogerson is also right to say that not every county in the northeast group has received the financial benefits that Beaufort County has received. Rogerson specifically mentioned Golden LEAF, the nonprofit foundation that gives grants to tobacco-dependent and economically disadvantaged counties. Golden LEAF just recently awarded Beaufort County another million dollars.
Meanwhile, said Roanoke Rapids Mayor Drewery Beale, “there are still people in Halifax County who go outside to go to the bathroom.”
And, as Rogerson pointed out, not every northeast county “has the luxury of a Greenville” nearby.
There’s no clear right or wrong in this particular equation. But there are clear — and big — differences in the approaches taken by the commission members and Beaufort County leaders. And maybe there’s even a big difference between the face of Beaufort County and that of a Hyde, Washington or Tyrrell County.
It’s time for Beaufort County to look at its economic-development options. Maybe there is, indeed, a better fit.