Guilford County Board of Commissioners Chairman Alan Branson knows there’s no silver bullet for the economic challenges facing the county, but this week he said there is one thing that would help a great deal.
He said it’s something this area desperately needs.
Branson said that, while other counties and large population centers across North Carolina and the Southeast have done well – often with a focused pursuit on specific industries and a crystal clear message to the world – Guilford County has wavered for decades with no clear identity of its own.
“We still struggle for our niche,” he said.
According to Branson, it’s critical that that change, and do so quickly, because at the current pace Guilford County’s tax base isn’t growing fast enough to support the county’s increasing needs. He said a clear theme consistently messaged to the rest of the world would help draw population and business.
The chairman said that, in the past, major corporate headquarters provided some identity to this area, however, over the years, they’ve left one by one.
Cone Mills Corp. was an easily identifiable anchor in Guilford County for almost a century, for instance, and the county used to “Sail with the Pilot” – Jefferson-Pilot – but it doesn’t do so anymore.
Branson cited VF Corp.’s moving its headquarters out of Guilford County as another blow to the county’s identity. He said there may not have been a big loss of jobs in that exit – VF did bring in some new jobs in the restructuring – but there was a real loss of prestige and revenue.
“Its a blow to lose those executive positions,” Branson said. “You have jobs where people are making $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 a year and you’re replacing those with skilled labor – so, even if it’s $50,000-a-year jobs, it’s still a four-to-one or five-to-one loss.”
We’ve got to figure out what’s going on with Fortune 500 companies,” he said.
Branson and the Board of Commissioners are starting to feel the effects of decades of lackluster population and economic growth. The board has numerous high-priced, high-need projects to build over the next year and not nearly enough growth in the tax base to fund them.
“Two percent every year is not going to cut it,” Branson said of the county’s tax base growth.
Democrats who controlled the Board of Commissioners from 1998 to 2012 simply raised taxes year after year to make up the difference, however, since the Republicans won a majority in 2012, the board has only lowered, never raised, property taxes.
“You either need more taxes or more rooftops,” Branson said, adding that the first one isn’t a palatable option to the Republican-majority board now running the county.
He added that lackluster population growth means anemic sales tax revenue and said another thing that has hurt sales tax revenue in Guilford County is residents doing more shopping in places like Alamance Crossing in Burlington with sale tax revenues go to a surrounding county. He also said that, when there’s little population growth and more people shopping outside the county, local government revenue streams can’t keep up with costs.
“If you look at population in the ‘80s, we were closer to Wake County and Mecklenburg, but look at the way they’ve grown compared to Guilford County,” Branson said.
The chairman said that having a clearly defined niche or identity is a big part of that solution. He said the Raleigh-Durham area has Research Triangle Park and Greenville, SC has its focus on automobile manufacturing. He said Mebane, just down the road, is flourishing by identifying itself as a low-cost zone with very affordable property and a low tax rate.
According to Branson, one good candidate for a local identity for Guilford County is aviation, if the coming megasite at Piedmont Triad International Airport can draw businesses, and he added that of course, if the county can finally draw a major automaker to the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, that would largely solve the problem in one fell swoop.