The Guilford County commissioners have found a place to hold perhaps their most important meeting of 2018: the Board of Commissioners Annual Retreat – a packed two-day meeting held in January or February each year where the board and staff work together to determine the goals for the coming year, set the county’s priorities and, in a very real way, map the future of Guilford County government for the coming 12 months.

This year, the commissioners retreat will be held on Thursday, Feb. 8 and Friday, Feb. 9 at “The Public,” a private event space in Morehead Foundry, a renovated industrial building at 433 Spring Garden St. That structure is also home to the restaurants Revolution Burger and Four Flocks and Larder.

Usually, the Guilford County commissioners hold their retreat at a location they want to highlight or draw attention to – usually it’s in an area where new growth or redevelopment has taken place. For instance, last year the commissioners retreat was held at the new Cameron Campus of Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in Colfax to show off that facility. The year before that, the retreat was held at the ACC Hall of Champions at the Greensboro Coliseum to help showcase that attraction. Prior to that, it was held at the fast-expanding High Point University, where university President Nido Qubein has been working his magic for years.

Often, as is the case this year, the facility will be provided at no charge to the commissioners due to the attention the event will bring the venue – though the taxpayers still usually pay the catering bill for breakfast and lunch for the two days.

Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller said a lot of effort goes into picking the right location for the commissioners retreat each year. For the past two years, the board has wanted to hold one at the new Union Square Campus that opened in 2016 in downtown Greensboro. That new nursing school is a collaboration between Cone Health and several area universities, and Keller said it was the county’s first choice this year. Keller said that, since the retreat falls during classes, it’s hard to reserve that facility.

She said The Public will be a terrific location for the retreat.

“They’re giving us an exceptional deal – no rental fees and really good meal rates,” Keller said. “It’s great; it will be perfect. It’s big enough and they are very accommodating.”

According to Keller, Guilford County explored a lot of possibilities before deciding on this renovated space downtown.

“We look for locations that are central and that are ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible,” Keller said. “We look at cost and things like, do they have the equipment needed, such as projectors.”

The agenda for the 2018 retreat is still being put together but Keller said one thing that will certainly be included is a review of the county’s finances midway through the fiscal year.

Keller said another item certain to be included is staff guidance from the Board of Commissioners.

“It really does have a lot of power and meaning for staff,” Keller said of the goals setting part of the annual retreat. She said it helps provide definable measurable goals that give a clear picture of what the county hopes to accomplish in 2018.

“We are tying in a lot of data analytics,” she said of those goals for staff.

The tone of each retreat is largely set by the chairman, and this year the board has a first-time chairman, Alan Branson, who was elected to that seat in early December after Commissioner Jeff Phillips served two consecutive years as head of the board.

Branson said he wants 2018 to be all about jobs and job creation in Guilford County, and that’s where the emphasis will be at the retreat. He said it would have been transformative if this area had won its bid to attract a giant new Toyota-Mazda plant at the Greensboro-Randolph County Megasite, just south of Guilford County, but last week the automakers announced that they had chosen Alabama rather than North Carolina. Branson said that blow was especially hard to take since, in the weeks leading up to the decision, there was a tremendous amount of optimism that the auto companies would choose this area.

“That kind of stunk,” Branson said of the decision. “It’s discouraging, the fact that Alabama swooped it up like that.”

Branson added that the Board of Commissioners retreat will be one place where Guilford County will have a chance to refocus its business recruitment efforts.

“Without a doubt, economic development will be a topic of conversation at the retreat,” Branson said.

The chairman added that there are other projects in the pipeline that the public doesn’t know about – though, he cautioned that those are nothing as monumental as the Toyota-Mazda car plant the county was attempting to attract. The chairman said that, despite the huge setback, he’s optimistic about Guilford County’s chances to bring new business to Guilford County in 2018.

“I still say it’s our year to bust it wide open when it comes to economic development,” Branson said, adding that the retreat will allow time for the commissioners to explore ways to help make that happen.

Branson pointed out that, in 2018, another area megasite is getting ready for any takers in the aerospace industry – the 800-acre of available runway connected land near the Central North Carolina International Airport, which some city residents remember was once called Piedmont Triad International Airport.

“I think the airport is still a good opportunity,” Branson said.

According to Branson, Guilford County government is in the midst of several major construction and renovation projects and the retreat will give the Board of Commissioners more time to discuss those. Three top projects the county is undertaking in 2018 are the construction of a new animal shelter at 979 Guilford College Road, an Emergency Services repair and maintenance facility now under construction near the corner of Vandalia Road and Rehobeth Church Road, and a major renovation of the old jail in downtown Greensboro to make it a suitable home for the Sheriff’s Department’s administrative offices. That project will also entail the demolition of the Sheriff’s Department’s current headquarters, the Otto Zenke building at 400 W. Washington St., and the construction of a new parking lot in its place. That should give Guilford County some much needed parking near the new jail that’s on that same block.

“We’re spending a heck of a lot of money,” Branson said of 2018.

Phillips, who was chairman for the previous two retreats, said that board will have a lot of issues to address at the two-day February retreat, including, he said, finding ways to meet the increasing demands on the county’s social services department.

He said demands for foster care services in Guilford County have been huge in recent years and there are many other demands on social services as well.

“We’ll see all the numbers for the entitlement programs we administer,” Phillips said.

Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said she wants to hear a report on the county’s efforts to use more Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBE). She said she wants to know what efforts have been made to increase MWBE participation in county contracts. In recent years, Guilford County has had a very difficult time hiring female and minority run businesses for major projects and Coleman and county staff have banged heads repeatedly over whether the county is doing enough in that regard. While in many cases it is difficult to find a MWBE firm to take the lead on a major project, one compromise that usually arises, as in this case, is that the primary firm hires MWBE firms as subcontractors to take on some of that work and bring those women and minority participation numbers up.

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing said this week that the list of items being assembled for the retreat is a long one.

“We’ve got a lot of topics to talk about for the agenda,” Lawing said. “The list that we have is substantial.”

He said the retreat is always a good time to go over the county’s major initiatives and goals.

He also said that county “infrastructure” issues will no doubt be addressed. One topic that might be on the agenda is a proposed water system for northwestern Guilford County that is being studied.

“Water will probably fall under one of the major initiatives – under infrastructure,” Lawing said.

Keller said this year her department would like to see Guilford County finally come up with a comprehensive media and communications strategy.

“I would like to talk about a communications plan for the county,” Keller said.

In 2017, Guilford County hired Worley Smith as its first public information officer, at least first one of this century. Smith previously worked in for the cities of Greensboro and High Point handling video production and public relations functions, but Keller said Guilford County needs to strategy to project a coherent public image when it comes to new items and a social media presence.

For years, there has been concern among top administrative staff that Guilford County is the third largest county in the state but it often doesn’t appear very professional when it makes an announcement or in the way it conducts other business.

It is now making an effort to change that and the strategy is expected to be addressed at the retreat. Recently, Guilford County introduced Jorge Ortega as the county’s new Animal Services director, and Smith has a microphone set up in front of the shelter, a podium with the county seal, chairs for the media and press packets with information about Ortega. In the past, when a new department head has been hired, the county has sent out a brief press release, if even that. But there is a lot more to it than just holding press conferences.

“We want to implement a style guide with logos and brands,” Keller said.

She said the county has 13 different social media outlets that currently don’t share much commonality.

The Board of Commissioners is also expected to spend a good deal of time at the retreat talking about various appointments to boards and commission that help the county carry out its business.

The commissioners retreat has been held outside of the county in one rare instance. In 2006, former Chairman of the Guilford County Commissioners Bruce Davis, who recently ran unsuccessfully for mayor of High Point, held the commissioners retreat in Chapel Hill even though the weather reports called for a major snowstorm that Saturday, and some county staff and reporters nearly crashed on the trip home as the roads iced over and snow came down hard.

Branson said this year’s location will be a lot easier for him than going to Chapel Hill or even having to drive all the way from the southeastern part of the county, where he lives, to Colfax in the county’s northwest, as he did last year.