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EDC efforts scrutinized

About 35 people watched Tom Thompson, Beaufort County's economic-development director, present a report to the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners on Monday. Economic-development activities in the county have come under increased scrutiny in recent months by some members of the board. (WDN Photo/Betty Mitchell Gray)

Finding a buyer for Quick Start II, the industrial property built to attract an industry to the county, is among the top priorities for Beaufort County’s economic-development interests this year, Beaufort County’s leaders were told.

Other priorities of the Beaufort County Economic Development Commission in 2012 include building “healthy communities” across the county, developing the waterfront in Aurora, helping Belhaven recover from the loss of a crab-processing plant, reopening River Forest Manor in Belhaven and developing an industrial park in Chocowinity.

Tom Thompson, Beaufort County’s economic developer, outlined these priorities following questions from the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners on Monday night.

Thompson met with the commissioners to report on economic-development activities in Beaufort County during the past year.

The report comes at a time of increased scrutiny of such activities in Beaufort County, not only by some county commissioners but also members of the public who have begun to question whether the county’s taxpayers are getting their money’s worth from the Economic Development Commission and its affiliated nonprofit organization, the Beaufort County Committee of 100.

Attention has focused in recent months on the state of repair of Quick Start II and a drop in the number of jobs at the Washington Industrial Park.

Thompson told the commissioners that three companies — two based in Texas and one based in Paris, France — have looked seriously at locating their operations at Quick Start II.

But, he noted, the building faces competition from other shell buildings across the state, including many in eastern North Carolina.

“The competition is enormous out there,” Thompson said. “And to compete, you have to have buildings.”

In previous years, Thompson’s report has attracted little attention, but an audience of at least 32 people — many of them associated with the EDC or Committee of 100 — gathered in the commissioners meeting room to hear Thompson’s report.

Their attendance at the meeting was apparently sparked, in part, by an email sent to Committee of 100 members at the request of Tom Richter, a leader of the group, which read “(a)s you are aware certain individuals are opposed to Economic Development and will undoubtedly be there. Please make every effort to attend the meeting and show your support for Economic Development.”

In interviews after the meeting, some county leaders expressed support of the commission’s efforts, but others said Thompson’s presentation fell short of giving them the information they need to make an informed decision about the EDC’s value to the community.

Commissioner Al Klemm, a member of the EDC board of directors, praised Thompson’s report, saying that, in relation to other counties in eastern North Carolina, Beaufort County has fared better, in part, because of EDC efforts.

He described recent attacks on the EDC as “vengeful” and political in nature, adding that the recent downturn in the economy has made economic growth difficult.

“The economy has been a deal breaker because deals have been broken,” he said. “And I dread to think how bad it would be without the EDC.”

Other commissioners were less impressed with the report, calling it more of a “marketing” piece than the detailed annual report of activities and expenses required by EDC bylaws.

Commissioner Hood Richardson, in an interview after the presentation, said county leaders must conduct “a thorough assessment from a cost-benefit standpoint” of EDC activities, including the expenses associated with the development of the county’s industrial parks.

He said the report presented by Thompson fell short of the information he and others need to make that assessment.

Commissioner Robert Cayton was representing Beaufort County at a public hearing in Pamlico County on ferry tolls and did not attend the meeting.