Polk discusses economic development strategy

Published 7:29 pm Thursday, January 16, 2014

Polk County Commissioners are trying to pave the way for how the county develops new businesses, grows existing businesses and stabilizes struggling businesses by creating an economic development policy and strategic plan.
Commissioners held a work session Monday, Jan. 13 and reviewed a draft plan. The county hired Robert Williamson, with Strategic Work Systems Inc., as a consultant for the plan.
The draft plan is general with commissioners saying the real work will come during budget discussions when the county will decide how much money to put towards economic development in the county.
“I’d like to take a second to remind each of you the goal and purpose for creating a Polk County Economic Development Policy and Strategic Plan is to include all phases of economic development by using the Polk County 20/20 vision plan as a guide,” said commissioner chair Ted Owens. “This will enhance Polk County’s opportunity to take advantage of being located at the intersection of I-26 and future I-74 and being within striking distance of two sea ports and 30 miles to an inland port. All of this is part of the Piedmont-Atlantic Mega-Region.
“This policy will help to preserve our ag-rural nature and give us an opportunity to have some living wage jobs as well. There is no intentions to diminish nor lessen the importance of the equine business or any other businesses we already have.”
Williamson said when commissioners are discussing how much funding to put towards economic development, 50 percent should be focused on developing new businesses, such as working to recruit suppliers to nearby industries (BMW, the inland port, etc.); 35 percent of the funding should be spent on economic growth of existing businesses and 15 percent should be spent on economic stability, or stabilizing businesses that are struggling.
Commissioner Ray Gasperson asked Williamson where he came up with those numbers. Williamson said he looked at poverty levels and rates and how new job forecasts are paying below living wage.
“If we let that slide, it’s an economic decline,” Williamson said. “You better spend about half of your resources on developing capital, developing new jobs.”
Gasperson said Polk is noted as having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the western part of the state, Polk County schools ranks in the top of the state and said Isothermal Community College was noted as being the 17th best in the country.
“And yet you’re saying that you see long term concerns about the sustainability of Polk County?” asked Gasperson.
Williamson said even though Polk has low unemployment rates it doesn’t count people who are off the job search nor does it take into consideration the pay.
“I don’t believe what we have now is sustainable,” Williamson said. Gasperson said Williamson is focusing on developing new businesses and his question is shouldn’t the county be enhancing its strengths.
“Where’s the money going to come from for the 50 percent of new development?” Gasperson asked.
Williamson answered that commissioners decide how to spend its resources.
Gasperson also asked how Williamson defines developing new business and industry.
Williamson said developing can include branding, marketing and recruiting. It may be going to trade shows, phone calls and grant writing to demonstrate that  this is something new the county can offer here. Incubators can provide space for an entrepreneur to grow their business.
“I just want to make it clear I don’t agree with your opinion of the sustainability of Polk County,” Gasperson said.
“And that’s your opinion too,” said Williamson.
Commissioner Tom Pack said he doesn’t think 50 percent is enough to spend on development. He said Polk’s youth go to college and the majority don’t come back. He said just in recent history, look at Hatch Mill and the number of employees that has declined. Woodland Mills is gone and James Tool is gone, Pack said.
“If you’re not developing, you’re going to die,” said Pack.
Gasperson said it is what it is but he doesn’t think anyone is ever going to say industry is going to be in Polk County; maybe small manufacturing. He said this is his sixth year on the board and every time there is an opportunity to try to bring business here the county has been doing it.
“I don’t deny that,” said Williamson. The policy aligns all the economic development the county feels is important. Without a policy you can do whatever you want to do.”
He said right now the county doesn’t have a policy that shows how it all fits together.
“If you want to develop your economy you have to have a strategic plan that says this is how we’re going to accomplish these goals,” Williamson said.
Commissioners have been working on the economic development strategic plan during the past few months and are nearing the public’s input.
During Monday’s meeting, commissioners edited the draft, making sure that the plan is general and does not single out any particular business sector in the county.
The vision of the plan was taken from the Polk County Vision 20/20 Plan, adopted by the county on March 15, 2010.
“Polk County’s rural atmosphere and serene natural beauty will be vigorously protected,” states the vision. “Visionary and pragmatic county and municipal governments will work together in a cooperative manner as they continue to enhance the quality of life for all Polk County citizens.”
Commissioners discussed that plan’s stakeholders are Polk County’s residents, organizations, businesses, institutions, communities, government agencies, commissions and boards, its municipalities of Columbus, Saluda and Tryon, but also added “and other entities in the 14-county economic zone.”
The county mentioned the importance of including Landrum, in particular, because of its close proximity even though it is located in a different state and county. Williamson mentioned that Landrum economically is closer to Polk County than to Spartanburg and Greenville, S.C., so much so that Landrum and Polk County combined their chambers of commerce.
Pack suggested the plan include working with neighboring areas to benefit Polk County.
Gasperson said he doesn’t think other areas are going to implement policies to help Polk County, but Pack said economically, Landrum is placed more in line with Polk County so they need to look at that.
Williamson said there are a lot of opportunities to partner with other organizations, much like Landrum and Polk has with the now Foothills Chamber of Commerce.
The strategic plan has five priorities and goals: to organize for economic development effectiveness; nurture existing business and industry; develop small business and industry (five to 100 employees); improve local workforce and employability; and participate in Piedmont-Atlantic Mega-Region opportunities.
Organizing for economic development effectiveness
The first priority in the draft plan is to identify existing economic-related initiatives, boards, commissions, roles and responsibilities. Examples include the county economic development director, the county’s economic and tourism development commission, the county’s agricultural economic development director, the farmland preservation/agricultural economic development board, the soil and water conservation district, the cooperative extension service, travel and tourism and the Isothermal Planning and Development Commission (IPDC). There is also the potential for a new Polk County Equine Commission, which would focus on the needs of the equine community, partner with the NC Horse Council and communicate with developers, travel and tourism and economic development, according to the draft plan.
The second goal is to identify economic development interests and activities of the county’s municipalities of Columbus, Saluda and Tryon, plus Landrum.
The third goal is to align economic-related initiatives, boards, commissions, and roles for best use, including clarifying roles and responsibilities, identifying priorities and promoting collaboration. The fourth goal is to develop and deploy improved communications with Polk County residents and businesses.
Nurture existing business and industry
The second priority is to identify the retention/expansion needs of existing businesses in Polk County. The draft plan suggests the county establish communication structures such as roundtable discussions, face-to-face communications, mail and email, etc.
The plan also suggests the county survey and document the needs of existing businesses and to survey and document existing business resources.
Other goals include to develop and facilitate business assistance programs through collaborative efforts; participate in Foothills Economic Partnership initiatives; participate in IPDC initiatives; participate in Foothills Chamber of Commerce business development and growth initiatives; to collaborate with Isothermal Community College to provide assistance on Polk campus; to collaborate with regional educational providers; to identify and promote travel and tourism destinations in the county; to identify and promote healthcare destination opportunities and to identify retirement destination promotion opportunities.
Develop small business and industry (five to 100 employees)
The county’s third priority includes five goals centered around how the county plans to attract new businesses.
The draft plan states that the county will map potential site opportunities in the county and its municipalities, including utility maps, land use compatibility, cataloging existing buildings and new building sites and documenting resource availability.
The second goal is to pursue potential business and industry development (incubator) sites and feasibility. Another goal is to grow and develop living wage jobs for Polk residents, then to develop and deploy local job posting/job search capabilities for residents and to develop annual long term economic development conceptual plans for the next three to five years and five to 10 years.
Improve local workforce and employability
The county’s fourth priority in the plan is to identify Polk County workforce development opportunities, with examples being job vacancies, unmet needs, skills and knowledge gaps and unemployed residents.
Another goal is to identify Polk County workforce development resources and improvement opportunities with a list of available community college and educational centers located nearby.
The plan also says the county should develop and implement education and training programs for working adults and employers in Polk County. Examples of possible programs include after-hours training, job incumbent programs, productivity improvement programs, collaborate with local and regional providers and to explore grant programs for workforce development.
Other goals are to develop and implement education and training programs for unemployed adults and to develop and deploy communications processes for local workforce and employability opportunities.
Participate in Piedmont-Atlantic Mega-Region opportunities
Williamson said the fifth priority really should be the county’s fifth and last goal. This goal, he said, should be in a couple of years.
The plan states that the county should link economic growth and development to regional trends and county assets/resources, with the emphasis being on living wage jobs for Polk County residents.
The county should also develop collaborative relationships with Greenville and Spartanburg counties, with examples being through economic development organizations, chambers of commerce, Upstate Alliance, GSP 360 and Inland Port.
The county should also develop and implement programs to prepare Polk County residents for meaningful participation in Mega-Region jobs, to develop and implement programs to prepare Polk County businesses for participation in the Mega-Region markets and to develop and deploy tools in a multimedia format to market Polk County to outside businesses.
The next steps in the strategic plan are to conduct one more workshop with a cleaned up version of the draft plan. Commissioners set Feb. 10 at 6 p.m. for its next workshop.
Gasperson asked why the county is not asking its economic tourism and development and agricultural board directors to give their comments. Pack said that is what’s next with Williamson saying the next step will be to get others’ opinions and comments on the plan. A public hearing will also be held prior to approval.
Gasperson asked how many more months the county is going to spend on the plan with Williamson saying commissioners should be thinking about it during their budget discussions so it would be nice to have it approved prior to next year’s budget.
“We’re going to have some ETDC (Economic and Tourism Development Commission members) excited, thinking we’re going to put some real numbers behind this,” Gasperson said.
“And we should if we’re serious about this,” Pack said.
Commissioners are conducting their first workshop for the fiscal year 2014-2015 budget on Monday, Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. in the commissioners’ meeting room of the Womack building in Columbus.

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