A prudent strategy, whether playing chess or managing a pretend industrial park, is to know the next move before making the first one.
The county Board of Commissioners, while trying to be penny-wise appear pound-foolish as it didn’t know its next move when it decided to essentially defund COMtech, leaving what was once envisioned as the county’s economic-development star — and its disillusioned tenants — with an uncertain future. Or did the commissioners have a plan that is yet to show itself?
The county commissioners, when adopting a $142 million budget, said they needed to cut COMtech’s funding request by $100,000 — more than half — because it was losing money. No other county department, and most aren’t in the money-making business, suffered a cut, which is illuminating.
A COMtech board member, Linda Metzger, complained recently that the county did not enlist with Ken Windley, the former county manager who had been exiled to the park, in his efforts to collect delinquent fees from COMtech tenants — the implication being that the wrong toes would be stepped on. The county countered by saying that matter will be litigated in court.
Metzger then raised the ante by wondering aloud if the commissioners will mysteriously find money to put “their guy” — whomever that may be — in charge.
Today the COMtech board of directors, a fractured group, meets to decide what’s next. The park’s tenants are angry, feeling as if they have been scammed by CONtech, any industrial prospects at the park are at best in limbo, and there doesn’t appear to be money to pay someone to fix it all.
The park could come under the auspices of the county’s Industrial Development Commission, giving the county’s point man for recruiting jobs even more work to do, or the park could be turned over to the tenants. There could be other proposals that we haven’t heard.
Ronnie Hunt, the chairman of the COMtech board, has been managing the park at no charge since Windley decided a two-thirds cut in his salary was too much and fled for an interim and better-paying gig in Gates County. Anyone who believes that the plan is to shoehorn Hunt into the position is ignoring evidence to the contrary: Hunt is working for free, not even charging for his expenses, and he has better ways to spend retirement.
COMtech has been a political football ever since the former CEO of the park, Tony Normand, began moving dirt out there more than a decade ago. The first political decision was to place the park next to Pembroke and not on Interstate 95, the nation’s busiest highway, a result of that Pembroke vs. Lumberton tug-of-war that always lengthens the road that needs traveling.
Usually Robeson County politics is fairly transparent, with the ending apparent from the beginning. But this scenario is playing out backward. We may have to wait until all the cards have been played until it’s clear what the county Board of Commissioners’ plan was when it defunded COMtech — assuming, perhaps kindly, that there was a plan.