Moore County Partners in Progress recently unveiled its 2020 Economic Development Action Plan before a large assembly of local private and public sector leaders.
Charles Hayes, a former Moore County economic developer and currently head of The Hayes Group, led a study of our county’s economic strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities. Over 1,000 residents participated in an online survey, while dozens of business and government leaders participated in interviews and focus groups.
The result was a thorough analysis of where we are and where we might go in the future. The Pilot has opined that the results were “a logical first step” and that “its findings are rather a blinding glimpse of the obvious, though its proposed strategies have an enduring logic to them.”
Reading about the goals, anyone even marginally familiar with Moore County would immediately nod their head in recognition: Expand medical and health care businesses, optimize proximity to Fort Bragg, capitalize on key sports assets like golf, attract and grow manufacturing. And transform rural Moore County, focusing on revitalization, business enterprise, tourism and agribusiness.
This all sounds good to you, the typical local resident, doesn’t it? You might wonder how it sounds to me.
During my career, I earned an economic development certificate from Georgia Tech and worked on economic development efforts in four cities in three states. So I have been around the block a few times on economic development efforts.
Given my past experience, I listen for a few different sounds. The first is the sound of a door opening and closing so often that it becomes a steady rhythm. That is the sound that I heard in the most successful economic development environment in which I worked. We had so many new businesses opening their doors that we did not ever see the need for developing a plan. That city has grown an astonishing 1,075 percent since the mid-1980s.
So do I hear that kind of sound here in Moore County? Nope.
I also do not hear the sound of anguish. There is not a general gnashing of teeth over our economic status. While we are not so successful that we do not need a plan, we are also not so bad that there is generalized fear and loathing of our economic future.
So while Partners in Progress was concerned enough to generate a plan for improvement, it was not led to it by an outcry from the people that the status quo had to change or else we were doomed to a future of decline.
So without the sound of doors opening or the sound of anguished concern, what is the third sound I am listening for? That would be the sound money makes as it pours into the coffers of Partners in Progress. In fact, that has been the sound that I most often listened for during my economic development efforts after the 1980s. And unfortunately, it was the sound least heard.
For while most places I have worked could intellectually say that the economy could be better if we worked at it, at a gut level, those places were not suffering enough for the powers-that-be to decide to free up significant sums of money to implement new ways to grow the economy.
So will Moore County in 2018 be any different? The plan clearly recognizes the need for more resources calling to double the staff of Partners to begin the plan implementation process. Beyond that, the plan calls for a business enterprise fund to be established and has many other components that will require resources to implement.
So will the county and municipal leaders present for the plan’s unveiling step up with more funding? Will the private sector leaders contribute more resources to begin implementation? Recent events do not suggest great hope here.
The recent abandonment of the Advanced Career Center by the county and school system shows us that developing a more skilled workforce for today’s businesses does not rank high against the possibility of having to raise the property tax a few more pennies.
Likewise, the veto of efforts by the Convention and Visitors Bureau to develop a business-boosting athletic complex does not suggest that our biggest businesses are willing to contribute resources to the betterment of the greater good.
So how much can reasonably be expected from the Economic Development Action Plan if our community’s leaders are not willing to notably increase resources?
I fear that the only sound we will hear is the wind blowing through the pines and not much will change for us economically as a result.
Kyle Sonnenberg, who served as Southern Pines town manager from 1988 to 2004, has returned in retirement after a three-decade career in city management in three states.