The man with arguably the most difficult job in Robeson County and certainly among the most important will be exiting it on Dec. 31.
Greg Cummings, who is on the doorstep of turning 70 years old, will retire that day after more than 21 years as the point man for recruiting business and industry to Robeson County. Everyone has an opinion about Cummings and his performance, but those who doubt he went about the job with energy and enthusiasm are simply blind.
For Cummings, it was a labor of love.
Cummings’ assignment could not have come during a more urgent time as he worked to replace as many as 10,000 textile jobs lost directly to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Perhaps just as devastating was the demise of tobacco, now a shell of when it was a $100 million industry in Robeson County and employed thousands of people directly and in support services. It also brought to the county dollars that supported jobs entirely unrelated to the once golden leaf.
Most of those lost jobs have been replaced, but in the tourism industry, where pay is low and benefits minimal if they exist at all, which helps explain why a third of our population is on food stamps. It’s not that the jobs don’t exist, it’s just that they don’t fully support a family.
It was always an uphill slog for Cummings as each victory was offset by news that another plant was closing down.
It’s not that Cummings didn’t have plenty to sell. Robeson County is blessed with so much: affordable land that includes several certified industrial sites with necessary and existing infrastructure; a moderate climate; highways running in all directions; the Lumber River; a regional airport; The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Robeson Community College; Southeastern Health; cultural opportunities, including the Carolina Civic Center and Givens Performing Art Center; and a location convenient to the beach and mountains as well as thriving urban centers such as Wilmington, Raleigh and Charlotte.
But a Google search revealed what Cummings had to overcome, including a dysfunctional and failing school system and the highest rates of property and violent crime in North Carolina, both chronic maladies that are joined at the hip and show no signs of loosening their grip.
For so many industries and professional people, those two factors are non-starters, making Cummings’ task not difficult but impossible.
There were other things that informed opinions about Cummings, including his being American Indian, which convinced some his job was political; his current job as mayor of Pembroke, a bad optic yes, but it should be remembered that industry picks locations, not Cummings; and his length of time performing the job, when some believed a fresh approach was in order.
Cummings will exit on a high. Recent successes include the landing of the Sanderson Farms plant, which will employ close to 1,200 when fully functional, and the Pepsi-Cola distribution center that takes full advantage of our abundance of highway, and hopefully will be at the head of a long line of similar ventures.
Although controversial, expect the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to eventually be constructed, something Cummings pushed hard for, and that will provide natural gas that industry covets, making easier the job of whomever replaces Cummings.
To be sure, that will be a critical hire, but we trust the Robeson County Board of Commissioners will make that decision based on prowess and not politics. There is too much at stake.
We know that Cummings will exit to mixed reviews, but it was a big-boy job that promises armchair critics. Our opinion is without ambivalence, and is simply one of appreciation for two-plus decades of relentless and determined work on behalf of Robeson County and its hardworking people who need a place to rest their lunch pail.