Polk hires local consultant to create economic development policy

Published 8:27pm Tuesday, October 22, 2013

County commissioners said the time is now to develop an economic policy and strategy to draw the right businesses to Polk County.

Polk commissioners met Monday, Oct. 21 and approved hiring local consultant Robert Williamson to facilitate an economic development policy and strategy.

Williamson may be better known for running the ice cream shop, Scoops ‘n More from 2002-2008 or being the chair of the House of Flags for the past eight years, but commissioners recently discovered his living has been made as a consultant for companies to improve their performance.

Williamson is the founder and principle consultant for Strategic Work Systems Inc., which commissioners unanimously approved hiring for $6,000 to facilitate the economic development policy and strategy.

Williamson’s proposal includes facilitating a 4-hour planning session with the board of commissioners to review the economic development opportunities and the economic recommendations in the 20/20 vision plan, adopted in March 2010.

Williamson then plans to prepare a first draft of the policy then facilitate another 4-hour planning session with the board to review the first draft.

Following preparing the second draft, Williamson plans to facilitate a session not to exceed a full day to refine the policy and strategy then to prepare the final document and assist commissioners in preparation and presentation for up to two public and/or committee meetings.

Williamson’s resume is extensive, with experience working with over 300 industrial plants and physical plants including the areas of manufacturing, assembly, mining, commercial and healthcare facilities.

“Growth will happen in Polk County with or without a plan just because we are who we are and where we are,” Williamson said. “Growth that provides meaningful living wage jobs for today and for generations to come requires a plan. Growing, attracting and retaining the right kind of businesses in Polk County, ones that provide living wage jobs and enhance our rural way of life, requires a plan. Growth that maintains the quality of life we enjoy in Polk County likewise requires a plan.”

He said that plan requires a policy and strategic goals set by the county commissioners and must be built on the county’s 20/20 vision plan.

Commissioner Ted Owens began the discussion speaking of the current economic growth occurring in the region with a push for Hwy. 74 to be expanded to Wilmington in the future, the recent opening of an inland port in Greer and Polk being in the center of the I-85 and I-26 corridors.

Williamson said Polk is in the middle of the 15th largest economic zone in the world with the Piedmont-Atlantic Mega-region from Birmingham to Raleigh being one of the largest and fastest growing in the U.S. He said the Upstate’s new inland port recently opened to move import-export shipments from Charleston to Greer by rail to take advantage of this Mega-region.

“We are also in the midst of one of the most beautiful regions,” said Williamson. “And we want to preserve that. We want to encourage the equine industry, viticulture and wineries, and develop our agricultural heritage.”

He also said poverty in Polk County should be unacceptable to the approximate 21,000 of us who live here. According to Williamson’s statistics, 14.4 percent, or 2,953 Polk residents live in poverty and 24.7 percent, or 1,037 of Polk’s children under 18 years old live in poverty.

“Of the fastest-growing occupations from 2012 to 2020 projected by the Isothermal Planning and Development Commission, 81 percent are projected to earn less than a living wage for the region,” said Williamson, “which is $18.70/hour.”

Commissioner Ray Gasperson expressed concern over when the public will be involved in the process. Gasperson voted in favor of hiring Williamson but voted against taking the $6,000 out of fund balance.

Gasperson said he’d rather take the money out of the manager’s discretion fund in order to pay for it out of this year’s budget.

Gasperson asked what role Williamson sees the county’s economic development director and economic and tourism development commission (ETDC) playing in the policy.

Williamson said he sees the ETDC and ED director coming in to review the first draft.

Gasperson said he always advocates for public comment and said the strength of the county’s 20/20 vision plan came from pulling people from all over the county on committees and boards.

“That’s the reason for (the plan’s) strengths and the reason it’s still holding together,” Gasperson said.

Williamson said he is only the facilitator and public comments will be up to the board.

Owens said personally, he was thinking Williamson will do his work with commissioners working with him, then let the ETDC have their input. All of the meetings are open meetings, Owens said, and once the county has a plan formulated they can hear from the public.

Resident Emily Clark expressed concern over the county not requesting bids for a consultant. She said Williamson has a very impressive resume and it is certainly critical for the county to have a good economic plan, but asked if other consultants were considered. She said the county had four consultants give proposals for the vision 20/20 plan.

Owens said after discovering Williamson’s impressive background, he was asked to look into it and he came back with some very good ideas, ideas that commissioners agree with.

Owens said he’d much rather have someone in Polk County because when he makes his recommendation he goes home in Polk County and has to live up to it.

“(Williamson) was asked to give us a price,” Owens said. “Of course living here, he gave us a price of $6,000. No way can you get a price of $6,000 from an outside consultant.”


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