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Wednesday, 31 January 2007 00:00

Economic commission overhaul stalls over board make-up

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An overhaul of economic development strategy in Jackson County has temporarily stalled over who will be in charge.

 

It appears more players want a say in the new economic development strategy than there is room for. A task force is tackling the tough question of who gets a seat on the new Economic Development Commission that will steer Jackson County’s job creation efforts.

It’s not a new problem. In fact, it’s one of the top reasons the old Economic Development Commission has become nearly defunct in recent years. It was intended as a partnership between the county, towns, Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College. But it was largely being run at the discretion of its chairman, Tom McClure at Western Carolina University, with little oversight from other players.

County leaders got frustrated and tried to oust McClure and take over the EDC. But McClure objected, claiming the Economic Development Commission was a sovereign group. Unable to steer activities in a new direction, the county pulled the plug on its funding instead.

That’s largely where things stood for the past two years, until the mayors of Sylva and Dillsboro proposed a task force that would bring everyone back to the table to find a new approach for economic development. McClure, meanwhile, is out of the picture due to health problems.

The task force wants to have a new Economic Development Commission in place by July with a new economic development director at the helm.

The current question facing the task force is how to divvy up the seats on the new EDC. There are a maximum of nine voting seats to work with. Under the current proposal, Sylva and the county would each control two seats, and Dillsboro, Webster, Forest Hills, WCU and SCC would each get one.

County leaders have reservations with that make-up, however.

The county will provide the lion’s share of funding and represent the most residents, but its voice on the board wouldn’t reflect that. Forest Hills, Webster and Dillsboro are contributing $2,000 between them and claim a combined population of less than 1,200. The county would contribute tens of thousands of dollars and has 36,000 residents — but Forest Hills, Webster and Dillsboro would have more pull collectively on the economic development commission than the county. Sylva would have the same pull as the county.

The towns also have a more limited pool to draw from when making appointments.

“Some of the best and brightest don’t live within the city limits,” County Commissioner Tom Massie said at a task force meeting last week.

Massie said county commissioners are concerned about the potential lack of private sector expertise under the structure currently proposed by the task force for the new Economic Development Commission. The EDC could be stacked entirely with town board members, county commissioners and public institution appointees, Massie said.

“It would be an asset if we had someone from a major financial institution who in their daily profession has practice evaluating what are good risks and what are bad risks,” Massie said.

Massie said the board could draw from major employers like West Care, and someone with the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority.

Massie proposed a solution on behalf of the county: make WCU and SCC advisory members without voting privileges, and give the two extra voting seats to the county to appoint.

Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College, agreed the Economic Development Commission needs a cross-section from the private sector. He said SCC would accept an advisory position on the board. A representative from WCU, Alan Thornburg, was at the meeting but said he would have to check with his superiors on the issue.

Why limit advisory roles to WCU and SCC, another task force member asked?

“I agree there are a lot of people not included. However, since we are limited to nine how do we create positions for everyone to be involved that should be involved?” asked Chris Matheson of Sylva. Matheson suggested there could be a dozen or more advisory members who attend meetings but aren’t technically voting members of the board. Some feared it could get a little too unwieldy and would have to be limited somewhere.

“Perhaps the other way to skin this cat is that we sit down collectively and say ‘Let’s come up with the best nine people who would do the best work for Jackson County,’” Massie said.

Massie said it could be a joint effort of all the towns and the county without specific seats spelled out. The conversation will be resumed at the next task force meeting Feb. 26.

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