Cuts to Economic Development funds have ‘critical’ impact
By Chris Berendt Staff Writer
If it takes money to make money, then the prospects of bringing tax base to Sampson County have taken a hit with cuts to the Economic Development Commission’s budget in recent years.
John Swope, executive director of the EDC, detailed the importance of recruiting prospects, readying sites and doing all the proper assessments and studies it takes to have developable areas “shovel-ready” — and all of that takes money. Swope said those funds for his department have gone down in recent years, which has made things more difficult, even as Sampson appears to have made headway in locating two local industries here.
Swope implored the Board of Commissioners during a budget meeting this week not to stop there, urging them to invest in the county’s future.
Since 2004-05, there has been a 39.4 percent reduction in EDC operating funding, as well as a 62.5 percent reduction in EDC recruitment funding, 43 percent just last year, he said. In 2004-05, the operating funding was at $118,583 and recruitment funding at $73,090. Those figures for 2013-14 stand at $71,804 and $27,400, respectively, a total cut of more than $92,000.
“That has had an impact on us,” Swope remarked. “We had a very dramatic cut … in recruitment funding we use directly with prospects.”
Prospect recruitment funding includes expending funds for all engineering services and assessments, documenting that sites and buildings are developable with no hindrances. Statistical data is compiled and all that information packaged to recruit business and industries.
“Prospect recruitment funding is critical,” Swope attested.
It is about having the tools in place to maximize Sampson’s potential and opportunities, with the ultimate goal being more jobs and tax revenues. The EDC has many programs through which it assists small businesses and existing industries, some of which choose to expand. However, new industry recruitment is vital to creating new jobs and boosting tax revenues.
He pointed to biofuels plant Chemtex and wood pellet production plant Enviva as two key prospects currently. Chemtex has announced its intention to come to Clinton, while Enviva is pursuing a site on Interstate 40, Exit 355. The two industries would mean $251 million in taxable investment — a six percent increase in the county’s tax base and a total of $6 million in tax revenues in their first 10 years after incentives.
“We’re not talking about $10,000 here or $20,000 there,” said Swope, “we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions of dollars.”
Two exits off I-40, at Exit 348 and Exit 355, have approximate total square footages of 12.3 million and 14.2 million, or total buildable acres of 1,028 and 1,180, respectively. If just 25 percent of that total square footage was developed, it would bring nearly $439 million in total investment, a 10.4 percent increase in Sampson’s tax base.
In annual property tax revenue that means close to $3.5 million annually, Swope said.
“We have had critical cuts and we’re not alone, we certainly understand that,” the economic developer stated, pointing to the benefits the EDC has as a liaison between local businesses and obtaining resources available to them, as well as the networking that helps keep Sampson’s name out there in attracting others locally. “I hope you see the Economic Development Commission as a value proposition.”
Anthony Sessoms, chairman of the Sampson EDC Board, lauded Swope in serving well as that liaison.
“To say that John has gotten as much juice out of this peach is an understatement,” Sessoms said. “I think over the past few years he has worked very hard to maximize his resources and get as much as he possibly could. Economic development is highly competitive and I encourage you to allocate the resources to it.”
Dewayne West, vice-chairman of EDC Board, said development along interchanges in the northern end of the county would be a massive benefit, one he has pushed for years. However, it does take money to pursue a larger goal down the line.
“I’ve sat through about 20 of these over the years as a county department head. If I didn’t develop anything else, it’s an appreciation for a board that has to make tough decisions, and I’m not blowing smoke at you. I always sat in the back of the room wondering who sets the priorities,” he remarked.
And that is what it boils down to, West said — priorities.
“I don’t know another agency in county government that’s more involved in trying to market the county and all the good things about the county,” said West. “It’s hard to do that when you keep getting your budget cut every year, and 62 percent sounds like a big number to me.”
Those funds are vital in identifying potential prospects and projects and going through the measures to make available sites shovel-ready. Not having a great deal of funds, West said, the EDC may have missed out on projects in the last 15 years.
“We don’t know what we’re going to miss in the next 15,” said West. “If (Swope) is going to be successful, he’s got to have some support from the board and I know you do support it. It boils down to do you want a solid economic development effort or can we do with less?”
With massive annual debt service and stagnant tax base and revenues, new businesses and industry are a must in growing Sampson County.
“We have to have some money from somewhere and it can’t be done on the backs of homeowners,” West said. “The only other option I know of is industry.”
During Swope’s presentation to commissioners this week, he hit on a great deal of the information he went through with the board during a February 2013 planning session. At that time, commissioners were looking at making cuts — and the ax did indeed fall — and some said that headway was just not being made in the past decade in bringing business and industry to town.
At that time, Swope said it was important to get the kind of impact projects that could not just garner tax dollars, but improve the quality of life for all citizens of the county. He pointed to the potential of I-40. A year later, with some of those impact projects coming down the pipe, one possibly at I-40, Swope said it was important to continue investing the money it takes to attract jobs and revenue.
“Hopefully we’re going to see some real numbers turn in from Enviva and Chemtex, I feel very strong about that,” Swope remarked, “but we don’t need to stop there. We need to be looking at how to maximize Interstate 40.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.
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