Polk approves economic development planPublished 11:50pm Monday, August 25, 2014
by Leah Justice
Polk County now has an economic development plan and strategy in place and hired an interim economic development director to begin implementing the plan.
The Polk County Board of Commissioners met Aug. 18 and approved the plan the county has been working on since last year. The majority of commissioners also hired Robert Williamson as interim economic development director for three months. Williamson was the consultant who helped commissioners draft the economic development plan.
Commissioner Ray Gasperson voted against the plan and the hiring of Williamson as interim director, saying other commissioners changed normal procedures to hire Williamson.
Commissioners added extending Williamson’s contract to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting. Gasperson said that way citizens didn’t have a chance to speak on Williamson’s hiring and the county has set a precedence seeking applications for other interim positions, but did not seek applications for the interim economic development director.
The majority of commissioners approved hiring Williamson as the interim until Nov. 17 for $5,416 per month, or roughly $16,250 for three months. The salary was based on Williamson’s research of similar counties as well as what the annual salaries of the past two Polk County Economic Development Directors were paid, which were more than $60,000 per year.
Gasperson said it appears to him there was a great deal of research done on hiring Williamson and his salary and questioned why the item didn’t make it on the agenda until the meeting.
Commissioner Tom Pack responded to Gasperson that in April 2010, the board of commissioners, including Gasperson approved the hiring of interim attorney Mike Egan without taking applications and in December 2010 the board approved Egan as permanent attorney without taking applications.
“We need an economic development director, (Williamson) is well qualified,” said Pack. “We need to move on.”
The board reviewed Williamson’s qualifications, with Pack saying the previous two economic development directors had degrees in art and design and sociology and journalism. Williamson’s education includes a Bachelor of Science degree in trade and technical teacher education and tool and machine design from Ferris State University and graduate studies in vocational-technical education administration from the University of Michigan, according to his resume. Williamson’s background includes non-profit and governmental grant writing and administration of a federal grant that resulted in the creation of 49 new jobs and 14 infrastructure improvement projects.
In 1977, Williamson was appointed by the county commissioners to the Northwest Michigan Manpower Consortium board that administered federally funded programs for unemployed, under-employed and disadvantaged residents, providing temporary jobs and job and classroom training for a 10-county region.
From 1985 to 1987, Williamson developed local/regional economic improvement and technology transfer proposals in English, which were translated to Chinese. Williamson said one was focused on building and developing rural petroleum production industry and workforce on Hainan Island for Henry Kissinger (former Secretary of State) to deliver to the Chinese government for the Chinese to use as their rural development template.
On the economic development plan, Williamson gave a presentation and asked before commissioners approved it that they attach the vision 20/20 plan.
He said it’s been an interesting journey and he’s learned a lot about where Polk County stands in comparison to other regions. Williamson said Polk has an immediate obligation with two new developments (Brights Creek and Tryon Resort) and to accomplish all this the county needs a strategic plan.
Williamson said besides meeting with all towns, including Landrum, and other boards and organizations about the plan, he had the draft reviewed by Jim Edwards, Isothermal Planning and Development Commission Director, who said the strategy is on target. Williamson said he also had Dr. Pat Mitchell from the N.C. Department of Commerce review the strategy with her saying she found it comprehensive and in line with the governor’s job plan.
Commissioner Michael Gage said commissioners attended the N.C. Association of County Commissioners conference a year ago and the title of the session was “unlocking opportunities.”
“We got back here and we got busy and I think we have a good document,” said Gage.
He said the policy is about the American dream for the rich, poor, everybody.
“The economy is getting better but there should always be an opportunity to do more,” said Gage. “I’m very proud of this policy and proud of everyone that’s worked on it.”
Commissioner chair Ted Owens said the policy is not written in stone, saying each board of commissioners can set their own goals.
“It holds our feet to the fire and doesn’t pass it off to a volunteer board to set that policy,” Owens said. “It’s a guideline; like the 20/20 vision plan in that respect.”
Owens said he recently sent a copy of the draft to a commissioner in Asheville because they don’t have anything, so Polk County is way ahead of the game.
Owens thanked Williamson for hanging in there, despite unjust criticism through the process.
Gasperson said he opposed the plan because over the last 10 months there was minimal effort to include key people such as economic and tourism development commission (ETDC) members. He said he was strongly opposed to paying Williamson $21,000 as a consultant and motioned to table the plan until after the first meeting in December for the new board to decide after the election.
Gage asked Gasperson if he gets paid by the citizens of Polk County to make decisions.
“We can’t wait until after the election for everything we do,” Gage said.
Gage said Gasperson wanted to table hiring a permanent county manager in April until after the election and now he wants to table the economic development plan.
“We have to make decisions,” Gage said. “If you want to refund me paying you for six months I’ll take that. You can’t keep tabling things. There’s always going to be an election. It comes every two years.”
The motion to approve the plan included to continue the current freeze on ETDC board appointments for another 90 days.
Williamson will fill in as interim economic development director following former director Libbie Johnson’s June resignation.