Effective use of tax money? Economic Development Groups - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

Effective use of tax money? Economic Development Groups

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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - We get dozens of press releases sent to our newsroom every day. Back when the economy was booming, we would get announcements about major employers bringing hundreds of new jobs to our area.

Announcements like those have largely dried up. Smaller employers coming to the state have started to get attention, and sometimes, even an appearance from the governor. But several weeks ago, we got an urgent press release from Brunswick County announcing the opening of a new McDonald's.

While any new jobs are good news, that had us wondering, what type of economy are we living in that the opening of a new fast food restaurant is grounds for press releases and celebration?

There are now dozens of organizations in Southeastern North Carolina focused on economic development. Several of those agencies are publicly funded. Conservatively, tax payers spent $8 million helping economic development organizations here last year alone. 

Since many of these groups are focused on essentially the same task, some people worry that we're sending a redundant, convoluted message to would-be employers. Critics are also concerned that we are squandering tax dollars trying to recruit the few jobs that do come our way.

Wilmington Business Development is one of the biggest industrial recruiters in our area. They get a few hundred thousand dollars combined each year from New Hanover County, the City of Wilmington, and Pender County, but the organization is primarily funded by private dollars.

WBD's CEO Scott Satterfield says his group played a major role in getting companies like GE and Corning to locate here, but in recent years there hasn't been much to announce.

"We have been very very fortunate in this part of the world, because of organizations like Wilmington Business Development, that have got a great roster of existing industry that's here, that has helped keep this area buoyant in the worst financial times since the great depression," Satterfield said.

Since the economy has a lot of potential employers sitting on the sidelines - Satterfield says they've been focusing on improving infrastructure and incentives, to help us compete when the economy does pick up.

Brunswick County's Economic Development Commission has faced similar challenges with a lack of employers ready to make a commitment. Director Jim Bradshaw explained, "Right now we have 13 projects that we are working with in Brunswick County. In the past 2 months, we lost 3 of them because of the concerns they have with what's happening in the federal government. Are regulations going to increase? What's going to happen with medical costs? So 3 of the projects that we have been working with have delayed their decision for a year because of that. Others are talking about not hiring as many people, because of those same concerns that they have."

That begs the question - does great marketing by economic development groups even matter to employers who are primarily focused on corporate income taxes and the state's regulatory environment. New Hanover County Commission Chair Woody White thinks it is important to have a presence - but he thinks our current economic development strategy may be flawed.

"When you have so many entities competing for economic development dollars, they also compete for attention, they also compete for legislative agenda items in Raleigh," White explained. "Instead of accomplishing a few really big things, we get lost in all the data and minutia…I think that it's important that we try to unify some of the economic development advocacy that goes on in this region."

White thinks changes are on the way at the state level to change economic development funding and strategy. He thinks there will be work to streamline our recruiting efforts, perhaps keeping the groups with a proven track record of success, and scrapping the groups that have been less successful.

(NOTE: An earlier version of this story indicated UNCW's Entrepreneurship Center used taxpayer money in 2012. The money actually came from investment revenue.)

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