Decker: Rural counties will get needed funding

First Posted: 8/1/2013

LUMBERTON — Sharon Decker, the secretary of the Commerce Department, on Wednesday told a gathering of Robeson County civic, business and political leaders that state officials are “aware” of the needs of rural counties and that funding will be made available for their economic development.

“Under the new system that we are proposing, rural areas will actually get more funds,” Decker said during her brief presentation at the Pinecrest Country Club, which was co-hosted by the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.

Decker addressed the concern that economic development in the county will be stifled by the decision of Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration to end funding to the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, a non-profit that provided grants to rural counties for projects improving infrastructure, job creation and business recruitment. The decision to end Rural Center funding was approved by the General Assembly late last month after a state audit of the non-profit raised questions about the handling of millions of dollars in taxpayers money. The audit results are being credited for leading to the resignation of the organization’s longtime director.

Decker said that state money targeted for the Rural Center and other regional development agencies will now be allocated to the Commerce Department, which is overseeing all of the state’s economic development efforts. Rural projects will now fall under the Commerce Department’s new Rural Economic Development Division, Decker said.

The state budget signed into law last week provides for $24 million over the next two years to be available through the department to the state’s most distressed counties. It also puts a cap on administrative costs at 5 percent, which would be about $1.1 million to distribute that $24 million.

Decker said that a 10-year economic plan for the state is being developed that will centralize economic development efforts and provide more accountability for use of taxpayers money. There will be more measures of accountability put in place, she said, and as the state undergoes “re-branding,” regional areas will receive more state funding to support their economic development efforts.

Decker said that rural development cannot be allowed to suffer because of the growth of urban centers such as Raleigh and Charlotte.

“North Carolina has two major economic engines in Raleigh and Charlotte,” she said. ” … We are fortunate they are there, but we can’t grease those wheels at the expense of rural North Carolina.

“We have to consolidate, simplify and develop a sense of cooperation. We have to be one North Carolina,” the secretary said.

But Decker emphasized that economic development is still an important role that must be played out at the local and regional levels.

“We are just here to support your efforts,” she said.

According to Decker, North Carolina should focus its efforts of recruiting and expanding businesses that are related to the state’s “heritage industries,” which she defined as agricultural and manufacturing. Food production and processing should also be targeted, she said.

The secretary pointed to plans of a sweet potato fry manufacturer to locate in Pembroke and eventually create 150 jobs for the region as an example of the kind of companies North Carolina should be doing business with. She also emphasized that state economic development efforts should not be placed on just recruiting large industries, but should focus on helping existing businesses expand and become more productive.

Decker said, however, that the state during the past eight years has been losing jobs faster than it has been creating them. The state’s unemployment rate is about 9 percent, and in some rural counties like Robeson, where the unemployment rate is still around 13 percent, unemployment remains in double-digits.

“That’s not acceptable,” she said.

Decker said she hopes the new structure of consolidating economic development efforts will speed up deals with companies looking to locate in the state. She also said rural counties should follow the state’s lead and focus on improving what she called the “five tenets of economic health” — health; education; economic development; arts, tourism and culture; and quality of life.

Pamela Hilbert, president of Robeson Community College, said she thinks the plan of coordinating economic development efforts through the Commerce Department will work well for Robeson County.

“It has a lot of potential,” she said. “This way we can coordinate the type of training and business efforts that are needed to help North Carolina move forward.”

Lumberton Councilman Don Metzger also believes the new way of doing economic development will benefit the area.

“Hopefully it will work more efficiently,” he said. “It will take away some of the waste because there won’t be as much political pull. Resources will be put where they are needed, and the distribution of funds will be more equitable than before.”

Rep. Garland Pierce, whose district includes part of Robeson County, said it was important for Decker to visit the county and explain the changes coming about in economic development.

“A lot was answered today on how economic development will be carried out in rural areas,” Pierce, a Democrat, said.

Rep. Ken Waddell, a legislator from Columbus County whose district includes part of Robeson County, isn’t quite ready to say the changes are for the best.

“It remains to be seen,” he said.

Sen. Michael Walters, of Proctorville, also expressed some concerns.

“My concern is about the continuity (of current on-going grants) during the interim (transition period),” he said. “We want to send the message to businesses that we want their business here in North Carolina and that we are open for business.”