A state-funded organization key to the economic development strides made in Sampson and across southeast North Carolina over the past 20 years will soon be no more — instead transforming into a public-private partnership that will be devoid of state dollars and require money from this county and others.
Since 1994, as one of the state’s seven regional partnerships, North Carolina’s Southeast (NCSE) has marketed the southeast region nationally and globally to attract new businesses and create new jobs. However, last year, during the N.C. Legislative session, “dramatic changes” were made in the area of economic development, including the abolishment of the N.C. Rural Center and N.C. Biofuels Center, which were downsized, renamed and reassigned with less funding.
North Carolina’s Southeast did not escape unscathed.
“The Legislature decided to de-fund the seven regional commissions of state funding starting June 30 this year,” said NCSE president Steve Yost. “The four state-appointed regional commissions, of which we are one, will be totally abolished, and of course we lose state funding. The ironic twist is the State Legislature said ‘we like what you do, you’re valuable, we really want you to continue what you do after June 30, just without state dollars.’”
Reduced funds were allocated for the current fiscal year for NCSE to continue on while developing a transition plan. Since last summer, the group has devised a plan to move forward.
On July 1, NCSE will operate from a new model that will be led, governed and funded by private funds and county governments in the region, much like others throughout the country.
“It’s going to be a very unique, high-level public-private partnership that does not exist in southeastern North Carolina right now,” Yost noted.
Economic development is critical for the region’s growth and, without NCSE or some form of it going forward, Yost said, this region will be at a competitive disadvantage in marketing and business recruitment. Following last year’s drastic state funding cut, feedback was sought from the 13 counties NCSE currently serves as to whether they wanted the organization to continue.
“Overwhelmingly, the answer from every county was yes, we need this, because if N.C. Southeast does not exist, we lose the majority of our industry leads and opportunities.” said Yost. “So we’re very, very valuable to the counties. I do think we’re going to have all the rest of the counties on board with this based on the feedback we’re getting.”
That participation will be in the re-branded North Carolina’s Southeast Partnership, a 501c6 non-profit, at an annual cost of $20,000 for Sampson County, a prospect county officials are expected to consider further in the coming months.
The partnership will essentially be a continuation of NCSE, with the same aim of working closely with economic county development groups to offer leadership in marketing and collaborative initiatives. The group has achieved “strong, measurable” results for the counties it has served over the past two decades, Yost said.
Created when the N.C. General Legislature saw a need to provide rural communities with the opportunity to recruit business and industry prospects, the NCSE has generated or assisted in 115 announced company locations bringing $1.2 billion in announced capital investment and 9,200 jobs to the region.
Since 2000 in Sampson County, that has included six companies, 370 announced jobs and $11 million in private investment.
“In Sampson County over the years, we have had some good success,” Yost remarked, noting partnerships with the N.C. Department of Commerce, N.C. Ports and numerous others to generate the optimum amount of economic opportunities for Sampson and others.
John Swope, executive director of the Sampson County Economic Development Commission, pointed out a number of resources and organizations with which the county partners and collaborates toward growing the local economy. He singled out NCSE.
“By far, the North Carolina Southeast in Elizabethtown is our number one source,” said Swope. “All the way back to Fibrowatt, Enviva, Chemtex, Ashley Furniture all came from the North Carolina Southeast. We’re very appreciative of working with the partnership. The only problem is the loss of funding from the state. We don’t need to lose North Carolina Southeast as a partner in economic development.”
While some projects have not come to fruition, the NCSE has been vital to getting industries to consider Sampson.
“For just about all rural counties in the southeast region — 11 of our 13 counties are classified as rural — the majority of their industrial prospects and leads come from our organization,” Yost remarked. “That’s based on 20 years of working hard and figuring out how to do it well.”
“We’re active partners in this regional organization,” said Swope. “If you had $20,000 and you were going to invest it … I would highly recommend giving it to Steve than giving it to me, because he can do a whole lot more with it as far as that marketing outreach and he brings us along with him.”
The partnership currently has 29 corporate investors and has raised several hundred thousand dollars annually to move the transition and new model forward.
“Local economic developers in the region will serve on an advisory council that will help guide the actions and direction of the partnership. This will be a truly robust, full-fledged public-private partnership. Local developers have always been an integral part of NCSE’s team, and under the new model they will have an even stronger role,” Yost stated.
There will also be more flexibility and innovative marketing “without state strings” attached, he noted. Yost touted the return that would come with the $20,000 annual investment.
County boards will have an appointed member on the Southeast Partnership’s Board of Directors, as will private donors. Of the nonprofit’s operational budget, 60 percent will be funded privately, the other 40 percent publicly from county funds.
“We’ve never asked you for funding before. We’ve always stayed away from that,” Yost remarked. “We’re not asking our county governments to foot the whole bill, but we’re in a situation now if we want to continue this valuable program, we’re going to have to use this new model. It’s going to benefit Sampson by remaining a part of this.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.