Commissioners vote to hire economic development director

Published 7:53 am Thursday, April 21, 2011

Polk County commissioners agreed unanimously this week to hire an economic development director, but not without controversy.
The board had a lengthy discussion Monday, April 18 prior to coming to an agreement.
All commissioners say they are in favor of the county hiring an economic development director, but Republicans Ted Owens and Tom Pack questioned the Democrats’ change of mind since they eliminated the position last year. Owens and Pack also said a director should not be hired before the board approves a job description and knows what resources the office will have available. Commissioners Ray Gasperson, Renée McDermott and Cindy Walker said a job description has been proposed by the economic development commission (EDC) and other details will be worked out later.
Commissioners held a work session Monday morning with the EDC.
Commissioner McDermott said she is in favor of combining the economic development office with travel and tourism services.
“We had an excellent meeting with the EDC and heard their proposal on hiring an economic development director,” said McDermott. “I myself am definitely in favor of bringing in an economic development director and I see combining travel and tourism with that office.”
Walker said EDC provided many details about their proposal.
“We do need an economic development director and we need to be very innovative,” said Walker. “We’re not your typical county, so finding that right person is going to be important.”
Owens said he would never have eliminated the economic development director position in the first place and suggested the county create a job description, decide who will oversee the position and provide resources for the position first.
“We need to know what he’s going to do and who he is going to report to,” said Owens. “We have a job description (proposed by the EDC), but we haven’t approved it. We have to approve a job description before we approve a position.”
Pack said Polk County needs to become more business friendly and to establish resources for the new director to work with first.
“I’m in support of an economic development director, but we’ve got to make sure we support this person,” said Pack. “We’ve got to become business friendly. Polk County is not known as a business friendly county. The director is only one small piece.”
Last year the board eliminated the economic development position, which was held for several years by Kipp McIntyre. Gasperson said Monday that there were personnel issues involved with the position elimination.
Pack responded if there were personnel issues, the county should have gotten rid of the person, not the position.
Polk County Manager Ryan Whitson said it was his recommendation to eliminate the position last year for budgetary reasons.
“I don’t think it was a personnel issue,” Whitson said. “No director could have brought in jobs with the economy. It was a budget issue to me.”
Owens and Pack mentioned the previous board’s decision to give St. Luke’s Hospital $285,000. The money granted to the hospital came from economic development funding acquired when the county sold the James Tool building to the business. Polk County originally purchased the building for James Tool to occupy as an economic incentive years ago.
“You can’t just throw a person out there without the resources,” said Pack. “What are you going to give them?”
Commissioner McDermott said she wished Pack had attended recent EDC meetings, including the work session held earlier that day in which details were discussed.
“I’m not the one who eliminated the position,” said Pack. “I’m not absent on this. We had $285,000 on James Tool. That money is gone.”
Owens said Pack isn’t able to come to meetings held at 8:30 a.m. because he runs a business in Rutherford County, and Pack said he has spoken to EDC members individually.
EDC chairman Ambrose Mills said he’s talked to each commissioner one-on-one and although commissioners disagree on some issues, points have been agreed upon individually.
“What I’d hoped to walk away from today is the approval of a position,” said Mills. “We’ll work on the details later.”
Commissioners did not decide on funding for the new economic development director, but said it would be best as a contracted service. The new position will be placed in next year’s budget, which will begin July 1.
Commissioners also directed the EDC to come back with a slate of volunteers for an implementation committee to work on details for the economic development office. Pack and Gasperson volunteered to be members on the committee.
“I’m moving forward with being as business friendly as we can be,” said Gasperson. “In these economic times we are going to do everything we can to bring in businesses that suit Polk County.”
The EDC has proposed the county hire a director of economic development and tourism in hopes that the county will combine the economic development office with the travel and tourism office. The proposal also recommends hiring a part-time tourism employee and a part-time economic development assistant.
Commissioners discussed only the economic development director position on Monday. They plan to decide next month who will run the county’s travel and tourism services. The options have been narrowed down to either giving its approximately $65,000 annual occupancy tax to the Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce to handle travel and tourism or combining the EDC and tourism offices into one.

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