Thompson looks forward

Published 6:36 pm Friday, April 20, 2012

Tom Thompson, who has led Beaufort County’s economic development efforts for over a decade, announced his intention to retire effective June 30. Thompson (above) stands in front of the Beaufort County Skills Center which provides short-term job training and an industrial incubation space for companies interested in moving to the county. (WDN Photo/Betty Mitchell Gray)

Beaufort County’s top economic developer on Friday told the Washington Daily News that he is looking forward to having “fun” following his retirement from the job he has held for about a decade.

“The only thing I want to do in life is have fun,” said Tom Thompson, Beaufort County’s economic development director in an exclusive interview with the Daily News from his office at the Beaufort County Skills Center.

On Monday, Thompson submitted a letter indicating his intention to retire June 30 to Evelyne Roberson, chairman of the Economic Development Commission. Thompson also submitted a similar letter to the Beaufort County Committee of 100.

Thompson had planned to seek approval of his resignation from the EDC Board of Directors on Friday but a meeting of that board was cancelled.

Instead, Thompson, 67, talked about his decision to retire, his future plans and the recent criticism of economic development efforts with the Daily News.

“It is with mixed emotion that I am informing you of my intent to retire from my position as Executive Director of the Beaufort County Economic Development Commission effective June 30, 2012,” Thompson wrote in his letter to Roberson.

“Between now and June 30th, I will work to resolve existing projects of record, and other initiatives. I will be available to help the Board on any other concerns as best I can.”

Thompson told the Daily News that he will “try to help” the EDC “find a replacement” and ensure a smooth transition before his leaves his post.

Thompson also said that he hopes to “cultivate another baby” that will continue to be beneficial to the county.

While he declined to specify that endeavor, Thompson, in addition to his work in Beaufort County, has been the driving force behind the creation of NC-20, a group of coastal counties that have organized to overcome what has been seen by some to be excessive governmental regulation.

That group has led the fight against increases in insurance rates for homeowners along the coast, implementation of new rules governing storm water controls and efforts to impose rules on development based on a predicted sea level rise.

As the face of economic development in the county, Thompson has served as chief executive officer of the Beaufort County Committee of 100 and director of the Beaufort County Economic Development Commission since 2001.

The Beaufort County Committee of 100 is the private, non-profit arm of the Economic Development Commission. The commission operates with taxpayer funds with Beaufort County contributing $195,031, the City of Washington, $91,789 and remaining municipalities just under $23,000 of the commission’s $309,440 budget in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

Thompson said that he has signed a contract to continue consulting with the Committee of 100 for the foreseeable future.

Although Thompson’s work has been praised by business and industry leaders, in recent months some EDC activities have been criticized from some local residents and county leaders.

They have questioned whether the county has been getting its money’s worth from industrial recruitment activities, particularly the construction of buildings intended to attract industry and county expenditures on creating industrial parks in the community.

Thompson said his decision to retire had “nothing to do” with that recent criticism.

And he said speculative buildings have been, are and will continue to be a vital part of economic development activities, particularly as the economy continues to recover from the recent downturn.

As an example, he sited construction of a spec building some years ago that first attracted Bonny Products that was later occupied by Miller Harness and now houses Flanders Filters.

“Buildings are the gift that keep on giving,” he said.

While the first industrial shell building at the Washington Industrial Park, Quick Start I, sold within about 18 months of breaking ground for the structure, Quick Start II, completed just before the downturn in the economy, has not found a buyer.

Thompson said that there continues to be interest in QuickStart II, despite his recent decision to ask one company that had shown interest in it to leave the Beaufort County Skills Center, and said the building’s sale has been hampered by the recent economic downturn.

“There’s no way to evaluate the pain of the recession. It’s the most brutal I’ve seen since 1973,” he said. “Is that building a failure? Heavens no. It’s a great building. It’s attracting a lot of interest. I assure you, it will sell.”

Thompson was hired to spearhead economic development in Beaufort County after serving in similar posts in Craven County and in Farmville.

During his tenure in Beaufort County, Thompson has overseen the creation of two industrial parks in Beaufort County, the construction of two buildings intended to lure industries to the county and the construction of a building and skills center designed to provide short-term job training skills and industrial incubation, among other activities.

He predicted that in the future the Chocowinity Industrial Park “will be filled with high quality industries.”

He has also been instrumental in obtaining numerous grants that have both helped bring new businesses and industries to Beaufort County and retain and expand existing industries.

Thompson said he most enjoyed his work with the Committee of 100 and attributed that organization as “giving those people that wanted to see something happen a voice to do that.”

“The people who have joined the Committee of 100 are just superb,” he said.

Thompson said the most difficult aspect of economic development in Beaufort County is the competition with the more urbanized Piedmont region of the state and the lack of four-lane roads in eastern North Carolina.