From this country’s inception, Americans have had a tradition of fair and open opportunity to work and earn a living, cherishing the right to keep most of what we earn through our toils and ingenuity.
I am greatly disturbed with the present posture of Lee County, the state of North Carolina, and the country as a whole in the pursuit of growing the economy and the prosperity of all who live here. We have a broken system for encouraging growth, one that bears exposure.
Economic growth is properly stimulated and encouraged when a public or private entity rationally evaluates the geographic, demographic, and competitive environments in which it operates, then puts forth a policy and plan for growth which are consistent with the realities of those environments.
Further, public policy is the responsibility of the elected leadership of a locality, not a subordinated or contracted authority. After all, we elect our local and state officials to represent our interests and we are entitled to hold them directly responsible for their policy performance. The same goes for planning. Our elected leaders should be accountable for their planning (or lack thereof) to benefit the public good. Although it is appropriate to sub-assign the details of economic development planning to contracted or subordinate staff, responsibility and accountability still clearly should rest on our elected officials.
Having said all of that, I bring to your attention the abrogation of economic development responsibility evident among the Lee County Board of Commissioners.
Over the past 4 years, the County’s economic well-being has moved in the wrong direction. Worse still, our elected officials’ performance has been so abysmal, our relative unemployment posture has fallen to 84th in the state among the 100 counties. Today, Lee County has an unemployment rate of over 12.3%, which is about 3% higher than the statewide average. We have had over 3100 wage earners out of work for an extended period, and more layoffs have been announced for the coming months.
It’s clear what our elected officials are doing isn’t working effectively to promote growth in the county, to get people back to work, and to strengthen our tax base in the process. These officials appear to have an unswerving commitment to economic incentives and grants as the exclusive means for attracting new companies to move here or for existing companies to expand locally. We have produced little effort to educate and train workers with the skills they need for 21st century jobs locally. We are not effectively marketing and promoting the county across the full spectrum of prospective companies. Our tax rates are higher than the counties that surround us, putting us at a competitive disadvantage. In short, we are stuck in an economic development rut and no one is taking the leadership to get us out. Remarkably, Commissioner Hayes has publicly stated he thinks the county’s recent past performance in economic development has been a good effort.
Recently, Commissioners Dalrymple and Oldham participated in collaborative discussions with officials from the City of Sanford and the Town of Broadway in hopes of establishing a more productive economic development policy and improving the contract by which the County employs the Lee County Economic Development Corporation (LCEDC) to execute that policy. Unfortunately, both commissioners missed the boat: the resulting contract was a major step backwards for the county, lacking any real priorities, goals, objectives, benchmarks, standard operating procedures or other guidance. The net result was a shameful contract, reflecting general incompetence in this important area of responsibility among all BOC members who voted for its passage.
Since we do not seem to have competent city or county leadership in this vital area of economic development, I encourage my fellow citizens to join me in addressing what can and must be done to improve our competitive posture and to get people back to work in the near future. In the coming weeks, I will post a series of critical updates under this category of economic development. Please contribute to the discussion with your ideas and suggestions.