County facing critical hire for its economic future

It would be hard to overstate the gravity of the hire that Robeson County Manager Ricky Harris and his team are currently charged with.

But we will give it a shot: It could be the most important hire in this county’s history.

We speak of the search for the person who will replace Greg Cummings as director of the Economic Development Office for Robeson County, a position he has held for almost 22 years. Harris said on Monday that “about 10” interviews have been conducted and he feels good about the quality of the candidates.

But, according to Harris, before anyone is hired the net will be cast again and this time wider. The initial advertisement appeared in two publications that primarily have a North Carolina audience, as well as an online posting. At the urging of a county Commissioner David Edge, Harris has said he will now post the advertisement in two publications with a national audience, and that no recommendation will be taken to the Board of Commissioners until a sufficient time has passed for there to have been responses to those national ads.

The job is advertised as having a pay range from about $60,000 to $76,000, but Harris didn’t pause long before acknowledging that the county would be willing to pay more for the right candidate. We hope the county finds a candidate who is worth more as we can’t think of a better way to spend an extra 5 or 10 grand than on the proverbial home-run hire.

Robeson County, we believe, is at an economic crossroads. The county is blessed in so many ways when it comes to recruiting new industry: We have cheap land, lots of highway in all directions, plenty of clean water, an airport, a regional hospital, a university and a community college, available workforce, solid infrastructure and a strong location with a favorable climate that is an easy drive to the beach, mountains as well as Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington and other desirable locations.

But we are also saddled with perhaps the worst school system in North Carolina, and high crime, both violent and property, so the point person for bringing industry into the county has to be nimble in answering some pointed questions.

Robeson County’s unemployment rate of 6.1 percent in October is ranked seventh highest in the state — and there were during that month 3,100 of us who were looking for work. But that number, as depressing as it is, only tells part of the story: Way too many of the 50,000 of us who are working are underemployed, stuck in dead-end jobs that pay poorly and either offer no benefits or sorry ones.

No one will swing a heavier hammer in pounding out a fix to those problems than the person who replaces Cummings. It isn’t that Robeson County has not hit economic home runs of late, Sanderson Farms’ processing plant and the Pepsi-Cola distribution site being great examples. But every bit of good news is met with some bad news, making it difficult for this county to get traction on the economic front.

This search cannot be polluted by good-old-boy politics, and it’s critical that it ends with the best possible hire.

We believe Harris knows that. And we trust the commissioners do as well.