New EDC director sees challenge, opportunity

Published 10:19 pm Saturday, November 17, 2012

Pictured above, new economic development Director Bob Heuts and Evelyne Roberson, chairman of the Beaufort County Economic Development Commission Board of Directors, discuss a project pending before the EDC board (Daily News photo/Betty Mitchell Gray).

Beaufort County’s new economic development director sees opportunities and challenges in moving Beaufort County forward in the future.
And it will take the work of all the county’s economic development interests in taking advantage of those opportunities and overcoming those challenges in the weeks and months ahead, according to Bob Heuts.
Earlier this month, Heuts (pronounced “Yoots”), former Lee County Economic Development Commission director, took over the reins as director of the Beaufort County Economic Development Commission.
“To me it’s a new day,” Heuts said in an interview last week. “I hope everybody will work together to support economic development and I think there is support for good things to happen in the community.”
Since coming to Beaufort County, Heuts has been “moving from meeting to meeting” trying to get his “feet on the ground,” understanding the product that is Beaufort County.
“I’m still waiting for my business cards,” he said.
On Nov. 1, Heuts replaced former EDC director Tom Thompson, who resigned from the position in June.
Thompson was the face of economic development in Beaufort County for over a decade and instrumental in the creation of two industrial parks and a skills center providing short-term job-training skills.
But during Thompson’s last months as director, he faced increasing criticism from some local residents and leaders who questioned whether the EDC’s industrial-recruitment efforts were worth the money.
Some also complained that in his last years, Thompson did not provide adequate information to the public about EDC’s publicly-funded activities.
The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners is scheduled in December to discuss proposed changes to the Economic Development Commission by-laws and job description of the county’s economic developer — changes prompted by some of the criticism leveled at Thompson.
Both Heuts and Evelyne Roberson, chairman of the Beaufort County Economic Development Commission Board of Directors, promised more transparency in EDC activities.
“I want to operate in a way that people will have a chance to know what we’re doing here,” Heuts said.
He is the latest in a slew of new leaders who have come to Beaufort County within the last two years — including City Manager Josh Kay, County Manager Randell Woodruff and Community College President Barbara Tansey — who can offer the area a new perspective and a fresh start, Roberson said.
“If all these people work together, we can bring good things to Beaufort County,” she said. “It’s time to bury the hatchet and move forward.”
A native of Indonesia, Heuts spent his formative years in The Netherlands and Chicago. He came to North Carolina in 1969 as a student at N.C. State University after being recruited to play basketball for the university by then-Wolfpack Coach Norm Sloan.
At six-feet, seven inches tall, Heuts played as a forward on the team in the years just before N.C. State won the NCAA championship, graduating in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
After spending some time abroad, he returned to North Carolina to work on a family farm in Franklin County. Fearing the changes that were to come in tobacco farming, however, Heuts pursued a career in the public sector.
That career took him to Lee County where he served as that county’s face of economic development for 16 years.
While there, Heuts helped develop the conditions for major expansion of Lee County’s industrial base, overseeing projects that created 726 new jobs and brought in more than $95 million in local investment and $18.3 million in new payroll.
Located just south of Raleigh, Lee County has a slightly larger population than. and median household income comparable to, Beaufort County.
But its proximity to the Triangle region, major Interstate and four-lane highways and the Raleigh-Durham International Airport give Lee County advantages in economic development not shared with Beaufort County.
Heuts said it was, in part, the challenge of working east of Interstate 95 and in a county classified by the state as economically disadvantaged that drew him to Beaufort County.
“I was at a point in my career where I had the opportunity to look around and it seemed like a good time to make the move,” he said.
Beaufort County has strengths — a good core of small businesses, good vocational education programs at the local community college, a vibrant water-based tourist economy and a large phosphate mine — that are not found in other counties in North Carolina, he said.
But, he notes disadvantages that make the region less appealing to prospective businesses than other areas.
The lack of a good North-South transportation corridor and other strong infrastructure and the distance of the county to a major airport are among the county’s challenges, he said.
Heuts also cites the need for public school graduates who are prepared to be trained as skilled workers.
Those challenges have led Heuts to consider “internal growth” and focus on growth of “smaller companies” as economic development goals for the county.
“We need to take care of our own first,” he said. “We need to make sure that if a company decides to close it’s not closing because of something we did.”
Staff writer Vail Stewart Rumley contributed material to this report.