Polk nears completion of economic development plan

Published 10:02pm Thursday, June 19, 2014

Economic development plan/policy public hearing Monday

by Leah Justice
Polk County Commissioners have heard on several occasions some residents’ opinions regarding the county’s proposed economic development plan and strategy.
Residents will have another chance to speak on the proposed plan on Monday, June 23 at 7 p.m. during a public hearing. Residents will also have a chance to ask questions and discuss the plan with consultant Robert Williamson prior to the public hearing beginning at 5 p.m. during a public forum. Both the public forum and public hearing will be at the Womack building in Columbus.
Commissioners met Monday, June 16 and heard from a few residents about how commissioners drafted the plan and comments regarding now former county economic development director Libbie Johnson, who resigned her position on June 4.
Some residents implied that commissioners planed to hire Williamson to replace Johnson, but commissioners decided on Monday to extend Williamson’s contract through July 7, assuming Williamson will present the final plan to the board and conclude his duties. Commissioner Ray Gasperson was the sole vote against extending the contract, previously set to end in June.
During citizen comments Monday, Dennis Hill said he is disappointed but not surprised by Johnson’s resignation and hers is yet another in a series of losses of talented and key people from county leadership positions.
Hill listed the detailed process of the county combining economic development and tourism functions in 2011 and the search for a new economic development director.
“Our director and ETDC (Economic and Tourism Development Commission) with this strong local knowledge and expertise prepared and recommended a strategic plan and goals to the BOC (board of commissioners),” Hill said. “There was an effective working relationship in place with periodic workshops to share ideas and secure alignment of priorities and needs. With the election in November 2012 and seating of the new board majority of commissioners (Ted) Owens, (Keith) Holbert, (Tom) Pack and (Michael) Gage, communications essentially stopped.”
Hill said when the majority decided to hire a consultant, neither the economic development director or the ETDC were consulted nor asked to participate in the workshops with the consultant directed to create an economic development strategy and policies, “something the ETDC had prepared and published several times previously.”
“Now we are a week away from seeing the product of the consultant’s work, at a cost of over $20,000,” Hill said.
Hill said there’s enough material in the 9-page document to keep a department of six people fully employed, but the kicker is, it’s the job of the ETDC volunteers to implement.
Commissioner chair Owens said he came and asked the ETDC board to change its direction and asked for real jobs. Owens said he found out later that the board made fun of his statements. Owens said it concerns him when people say commissioners didn’t reach out to the ETDC board and that’s not true.
Judy Heinrich talked about the hiring of Johnson being unanimously approved by commissioners, including Owens and Pack. She said in 2013 some commissioners went to an association of county commissioners meeting in Raleigh and came home excited, but still did not talk to the economic development board or directors. Instead, Heinrich said, one commissioner ran into a friend (Williamson) in a store, told Williamson how excited they were about economic development, Williamson sends the county a proposal and the board approves it by a 4-1 vote.
Heinrich said the process of an economic development plan should have been to speak to actual businesses in the county to find out how they are doing and their needs, but no one did.
“As the lady in the commercial says, ‘that’s not how this works,’” said Heinrich. “’That’s not how any of this works.’”
Dave Maxwell said he was elated to get the news that Polk County now has the second lowest unemployment rate in the state, all of which happened under the auspices of economic development director Johnson and her staff and well qualified volunteers.
“And, it happened despite the denial by this BOC of a modest 2013 budget increase to recruit new businesses for Polk County,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell said he has looked at the sixth iteration of the draft economic development policy, saying it’s an example of bureaucracy 101. In short, he said, the plan should increase county employment just to go through the motions of trying to implement it, but it delivers nothing.
“Remember the old Wendy’s commercial, ‘where’s the beef?’” Maxwell asked. “I can tell you it’s not here.”
Debbie Arceneaux said there seems to be some kind of secret club in the county and this club knows what everybody is thinking or is doing or is going to be doing.
“The secret club seems to know your intentions are to hire on Mr. Williamson,” Arceneaux said.
Arceneaux said Polk has had zero development and it would be different if there were hotels going up. Kids are leaving because there’s no employment in Polk County, Arceneaux said.
Commissioner Gage said unemployment is low and that is good, but people are working outside Polk County and people can’t work outside and participate in the community, like coach Little League. Gage said commissioners are trying to get jobs here so people can participate in the county.
Commissioner Pack said a lot of things that residents said Monday are not necessarily true with people twisting things.
“Yes the unemployment rate is going down, but a lot of times the rate goes down because people stopped looking for jobs,” Pack said, “not because people are finding jobs. It’s because they give up.”
To view the latest draft of the county’s economic development plan and strategy, visit www.polknc.org where it is linked on the home page.

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