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Guilford County Seeking Overhaul of Partnership And Its Partners

 

SCOTT D. YOST

August 28, 2014

There is at least one good reason the Guilford County Board of Commissioners is currently putting so much time and effort into a rethinking its economic development strategy: The economic development structure Guilford County now has in place is not working at all.

 

Chairman of the Board of Guilford County Commissioners Bill Bencini said that the one thing everyone seems to be in favor of is change.

 

“I think we all agree that what we have now hasn’t been working well,” Bencini said.

 

Commissioner Alan Branson said he doesn’t think the Greensboro Partnership and other economic development groups have done a good job of communicating with area developers and business leaders, and something needs to be done about it.

 

Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp said this week that the Guilford County Board of Commissioners needs to put a great deal of care and thought into its next move because it is very important that the county get this one right.

 

“It’s a time for us to put all options on the table as we face these economic development challenges,” Trapp said.

 

Given the importance of new jobs and a thriving local economy, it’s no surprise that the county commissioners – as well as their counterparts on the Greensboro City Council – have been discussing the future of the Greensboro Partnership and the other economic development groups charged with bringing new business to the area and expanding existing businesses.

 

The Guilford County commissioners are currently exploring a wide variety of options as to how to fix the problem.  The possibilities being bandied around include everything from rearranging the current structure of economic development groups, to moving those operations under Guilford County government, to uniting with Greensboro and possibly High Point to form a consolidated regional economic development organization that is more responsive to elected leaders, area developers and business owners than current groups are.

 

Though the Greensboro Partnership is a nonprofit, much of its funding comes from Greensboro and Guilford County and, as such, the two local governments have a great deal of say when it comes to that organization.

 

Guilford County commissioners often list their top three priorities as “jobs, jobs and jobs,” so it’s been very frustrating that Greensboro and Guilford County haven’t seen the type of job growth in recent years that everyone wants to.

 

Though the commissioners have wanted to see more jobs, they’ve done nothing substantive in recent years to fix the problem.  So far, their only tool seems to be the ability to throw taxpayer money at new companies in the form of incentives and hope that that company comes to Guilford County.  But in recent years, even those opportunities to give money away to rich companies have been few and far between.  The Board of Commissioners did back Project Haystack, a proposed giant data center park, but that project went nowhere.

 

The repercussions of the lack of new jobs have contributed to a big shakeup in the area’s economic development community.  The two highest paid development officials in Greensboro with the highest profiles in the county are stepping down.  Earlier this year, Greensboro Economic Development Alliance President Dan Lynch announced he was calling it quits at the end of 2014 and, a few weeks ago, Pat Danahy, the president and CEO of the Greensboro Partnership, announced he was retiring as well.

 

Trapp said the current strategy clearly has to change, though it might be more true to say that the county hasn’t really had any real strategy: In recent years, Guilford County’s focus has been on funding the Greensboro Partnership and letting that group do pretty much whatever it wanted.

 

“I don’t feel it’s been working,” Trapp said of that arrangement.  “We have the statistics to show it’s not working – so the question is, where do we go from here?”

 

Trapp said it’s a matter of great concern for both the county commissioners and the Greensboro city councilmembers.

 

“I know the city is having these same talks,” Trapp said.

 

Trapp also said he feels as though this is something Guilford County and the City of Greensboro will be able to tackle together, and he said that, though the relationship between the two local governments has been rocky at times in the past, he feels like things have improved recently.

 

“We have a better working relationship now,” Trapp said.

 

He also said the county would welcome the City of High Point into the conversation, but he added that he isn’t sure High Point is interested since, unlike Greensboro and the county as a whole, High Point has had a recent string of economic development successes lately, landing some high-profile companies that are providing solid job growth to that area.

 

“High Point is pretty happy; I’m not sure what they would want,” Trapp said.

 

Several commissioners said that, while the economic development structure in Guilford County is clearly in a state of disarray, the positive aspect of the current situation is that this is the perfect time to overhaul the system.  There is a great deal of agreement that, with Lynch and Danahy leaving, it’s the perfect time for rethinking and restructuring the area’s economic development efforts.

 

Commissioner Jeff Phillips said this is an excellent moment for the county to reevaluate its approach, and he added that when Chuck Burns, the chairman of the Greensboro Partnership board, addressed the commissioners in a county work session in the Blue Room on Thursday afternoon, August 21, it was good to hear from him that the Partnership wasn’t in a rush to fill those positions.

 

“I was glad to hear him say he was not in a hurry,” Phillips said.

 

Phillips said this is an important time for the county and things need to be handled in the right way.

 

Burns told the commissioners at the work session that he and other Partnership officials were open to all possibilities.

 

At that work session, Phillips said that, rather than rush ahead with a search committee to find a new head of the Greensboro Partnership, it was a time to “pause” and have a serious and deliberate discussion about the best way to move forward with a coherent strategy for economic development.

 

“It seems like redefining what economic development looks like is the question that needs to be answered first,” Phillips said.  “If we don’t do that, then I think we’ve just ended up where we started.”

 

At the August 21 work session, Bencini agreed.  He said there was a lot of work to be done before the Partnership begins filling vacancies and going about business as usual.  Bencini said that, given the current broken state of area job growth efforts, it’s important to find a strategy that will work so that Guilford County will have a better chance of drawing in a top-level economic development leader.

 

“I’m not sure we can bring the best one here before we fix things,” Bencini said.  “First we need a very frank and open dialogue.”

 

Bencini also said Guilford County needs to take a look at what is and isn’t working in other counties.

 

The always pokerfaced Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing could never be accused of wearing his emotions on his sleeve, but it is nevertheless clear to all who work with him that economic development is something he spends a great deal of time thinking about, perhaps even fretting over.  Lawing was hired largely for his skills in promoting economic development in Brunswick County.

 

When Lawing left Brunswick County last year to come work for Guilford County, the Wilmington Star-News news ran a story with the headline, “Manager Lawing made mark with infrastructure, growth,” and when the Guilford County commissioners explained their decision to hire Lawing, they pointed to the economic growth in Brunswick County during the decade Lawing ran that county.  Lawing is now eager to promote job growth in a county without the advantages of beautiful beaches and being constantly glorified in Nicholas Sparks’ novels.

 

At the August 21 work session, Lawing was asked his thoughts about other counties where things are working well.

 

“A lot of different models have worked,” Lawing said.

 

He said that, given different attributes and considerations for each county there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

 

“Every county is different,” Lawing said.

 

That said, Lawing added there are certainly cities and counties that Guilford County could learn from.

 

“A lot of people talk about Greenville, South Carolina,” the manager said.

 

Greenville’s economy, like that in Guilford County, has in the past been based largely on textiles, but now it rests on big names like Michelin, Caterpillar, BMW, Lockheed Martin, 3M and Honeywell.

 

Guilford County has focused on aviation and high-tech companies as new business targets – though those efforts have only met with limited success.

 

At the work session, Lawing said the county needed a unified front for its economic development efforts.

 

“I’m talking about consolidation, as much as you can,” Lawing said.  “Most counties have one centralized economic development group.  Some are under the county.  Most are separate nonprofits.”

 

He said that in some cases, the board members of economic development groups are appointed by elected leaders.

 

“It brings in an accountability piece,” Lawing said.

 

“It’s very competitive out there,” Lawing said.  “It’s not easy and we’ve got a huge opportunity in front of us.  Timing is everything.  It’s so crucial and we can’t be fragmented.”

 

After that work session, Lawing told the Rhino Times that, while some counties have their own in-house economic development teams, he doesn’t believe that would be a good move for Guilford County.

 

“I think that would be a mistake,” he said.

 

Like Lawing, Trapp also said the county shouldn’t simply attempt a wholesale takeover of economic development efforts.

 

Trapp said Guilford County doesn’t have to be directing every move, but instead it can create an environment for growth and can help facilitate the private sector efforts to bring in new business.

 

“I’m not sure we need to be driving it,” he said of Guilford County government, “but we need to be at the table.”

 

 

 

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