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A years-long effort to find some use for the Historic Haywood County Hospital on Waynesville’s North Main Street appears to be moving forward with renewed vigor, as the building continues to deteriorate.

Despite a perfect score on its application, Haywood County was not awarded tax credits that would have helped developers turn the old county hospital into low-income housing units for the elderly, disabled and veterans. 

haywoodThe plan to convert the old hospital in Haywood County into low-income apartments isn’t a done deal. It’s contingent on both historic preservation and low-income housing tax credits to make it financially viable.

fr oldhospitalA new plan is the works to convert the abandoned old hospital in Haywood County into an affordable housing apartment complex.

fr mccrorysylvaIf traffic seemed a bit slow through downtown Sylva on Friday (May 22), it probably had something to do with Gov. Pat McCrory’s afternoon stroll along Main Street that day.

Haywood County tourism leaders want to increase the tax on overnight lodging to fund special tourism-related capital projects, including a Jonathan Creek sports complex — a proposal that seems to have traction with county commissioners as well.

Haywood County was more economically distressed this year, according to state rankings that essentially classify the counties from wealthiest to poorest.

But Mark Clasby, executive director for the economic development commission, is far from disappointed about the news.

“I’m very pleased,” said Clasby.

That’s because the lower ranking allows Haywood much greater access to tax incentives that could attract new businesses – and jobs – to the area.

The ranking reflects only a minor move down the line, with the state bumping Haywood down four spots, from 81st to 77th.

“This is all relative to the other 99 counties,” said Deborah Barnes, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Commerce, which creates the rankings. “It doesn’t mean your county is in dire shape all of a sudden.”

In fact, median income, property tax base per capita and household income all increased in Haywood County this year, according to Barnes.

“Unfortunately, your unemployment rate went up, too,” said Barnes. Latest statistics show the unemployment rate in Haywood was at 9 percent in October.

Every year, the state Department of Commerce categorizes all counties into one of three tiers. The most prosperous counties in the state (ranked 81-100) are classified as Tier 1, the next bunch (ranked 41-80) are placed in Tier 2, while the most economically distressed counties (1-40) are classified as Tier 1.

Last year, Haywood just barely squeaked into the Tier 3 classification, occupying the last place in a tier containing the state’s wealthiest counties.

Falling a few spots in 2009 means Haywood is now a Tier 2 county again. But Clasby thinks that’s a more accurate assessment anyway.

“I never felt that we were Tier 3 because we’re a rural county,” said Clasby, who referred to Tier 3 counties, like Buncombe, Wake and Mecklenburg, as “major league.”

The rankings make a significant difference when it comes to applying for tax incentives, according to Clasby.

For example, establishing 10 new jobs in a Tier 3 county could mean a potential $7,500 in tax credits for a business.

Companies might be drawn toward developing in a Tier 2 county instead, scoring a potential $50,000 tax credit for the same 10 jobs.

Meanwhile, establishing those ten jobs in a Tier 1 County could mean $125,000 in tax credits.

Clasby said Haywood being in Tier 2 means he has more tools to work with when attracting businesses, but that doesn’t mean he would want Haywood to drop to Tier 1.

“Being near the top of Tier 2, I’m happy,” said Clasby.

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said he had mixed feelings about the ranking change.

“The good news is we have more incentives available. The bad news is that we’re poorer,” said Brown. “It’s like a doctor saying your blood pressure is higher, but you have better medicine to take care of it.”

In Brown’s view, the rankings aren’t likely to have much of an impact since the recession has deterred growth.

“We’re in the middle of an economic tsunami,” said Brown. “Ain’t nobody doing anything anyway.”

The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce’s Green Initiative is one of those projects that is good on many different levels, not the least of which is the admirable goal of reducing the impact the business community has on the environment.

The Green Initiative, which is being headed by Haywood Community College President Dr. Rose Johnson, is aimed at establishing a methodology by which businesses can earn a “green designation” from the chamber of commerce. A chamber committee has been working for months to set up the criteria, and the categories include recycling, water and energy.

Those businesses that earn this designation will benefit in many ways. Aside from doing what is right, it is likely that many potential customers will appreciate their efforts and choose to do business with them. As this program is formalized, more businesses will likely follow suit and try to earn the designation. That’s a direct benefit that makes the investment to attain the green designation worthwhile from a business perspective.

The fact that the chamber of commerce has put in the time and effort to set up the Green Initiative speaks well of the organization. In too many cases those in the business community pit profit and sustainability efforts against one another. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the opposite is true. Companies that save energy and cut waste make more money, and though it’s impossible to have zero impact, it is a worthwhile effort.

This initiative is one component of a critical mass of sustainability efforts currently being implemented in Haywood County. These include:

• The county Economic Development Commission is formalizing a list of tax incentives for green energy companies to entice them to open shop in the county. The catalyst for that effort was the request for a tax break by a huge solar farm being built near Canton, a project that will be among the largest of its kind in the Southeast once completed.

• Haywood Community College and Dr. Rose Johnson are taking steps to make that institution a center for environmental learning. Staff members are working to implement course offerings that infuse the college’s forestry, wildlife, construction, nursery and other programs with cutting edge sustainability courses and practices. In addition, the college is working to make itself a leader in all these resource-saving areas.

• And Stephen King, the county’s solid waste director, has been a part of the Green Initiative and is a champion of recycling efforts. He has brought great ideas that have helped the county recycling program and is also working to tap the methane at the county’s landfill and harness it for energy use.

There will be intangible benefits for Haywood County for being at the forefront of the green movement. Some areas in the Northeast and out West may be further along, but Haywood County and others in this region are staking a claim as a leader in the Southeast. That is good for quality of life and for businesses.

The chamber’s Green Initiative taps into a truth that’s very important for those of us living in this region. The forests, streams and air are what make this place special, what give the mountains their special, almost spiritual appeal.

“Natural resources are part of the beauty of where we live. That’s why people come here,” said Laura Leatherwood, director of Community and Economic Development at HCC and a participant in the Green Initiative. “We want people to live it personally but we need our business community to live it as well in their practices as they do business throughout the day.”

Economic development officials have adopted a policy that will give business incentives to clean, renewable energy projects that locate in Haywood County.

County officials hope the policy will convince green businesses to locate in the region, as well as provide a justification for giving incentives to businesses that don’t create many jobs.

Incentives will be given to solar, wind and hydropower energy projects that generate more than 50 kilowatts of energy. Projects that make use of landfills, brown-field sites, rooftops and other locations with minimal economic value will qualify for an 80 percent break on property taxes over a five-year period. Projects not located on those sites can receive a maximum of 60 percent in incentives.

Officials hope the incentives will make the county more attractive to prospective green businesses.

“Everyone wants to go where they feel welcome,” pointed out County Commissioner and Economic Development Commission board member Mark Swanger.

“If we can put this up on our Web site, we may attract other businesses of that same ilk or nature,” agreed Waynesville Mayor and EDC Board Member Gavin Brown.

The policy comes weeks after scrutiny over the decision by county commissioners to grant business incentives to FLS Solar Energy, a company that plans to build a solar energy farm on an old paper mill landfill in Canton.

The county granted FLS a five-year, 80 percent break on its business property taxes, saving the company $32,000. However, the entire project would only create about 12 jobs, and those would come during construction.

“(The current policy) leaves it open for anyone coming in and saying, you did it for XYZ, will you do it for me?” said Swanger.

The new policy addresses that issue.

“(The policy) is being developed in recognition that while developments of clean, renewable energy sources ... (may) not provide as many permanent jobs as traditional economic development projects ... development of clean, renewable energy projects also provide many intrinsic benefits to the community that traditional economic development projects do not and require little public infrastructure or services,” it states.

For the few jobs that are created by these projects, the policy requires companies advertise and recruit in Haywood County.

County commissioners must approve the policy before it can be formally adopted.

Before Haywood County commissioners approve a request to cut property taxes on a business that plans to build an $8 million solar farm near Canton, they need to get serious about developing a long-term green collar industry incentive package. One break for one company seems more like a handout, which in this day every other company could find fault with.

On the surface the request seems almost inconsequential given the relatively small amount of money involved, about $32,000 over five years. In this economy, however, many will be watching the commissioners very closely. A whole lot of local, long-time businesses are struggling to keep people employed while paying their taxes in full.

FLS Solar Energy is planning what is billed as the largest solar farm in the Southeast on an old landfill in Canton. It will install 3,200 solar panels on seven acres that will produce enough electricity to power 1,200 homes. The company has signed a 20-year agreement to sell the electricity to Progress Energy. The utility giant must, under state law, start producing an increasing percentage of its power from green sources.

The announcement late last year that Haywood would be chosen for the solar farm was met with near universal excitement. Although the project won’t produce any long-term jobs, it is being hailed as a coup for Haywood County and Western North Carolina. Row upon row of solar panels will track the sun from an old landfill, proving that this region cares about energy production and global warming, perhaps providing some intangible benefits when it comes to business recruitment. It’s difficult to gauge the economic development benefit of having the largest solar farm in the Southeast (though it’s likely a larger facility somewhere won’t be far behind), but most believe that benefit is more symbolic than tangible.

FLS, for its part, is asking for help to make it through its first five years in opration. The $32,000 it wants Haywood County to forgive amounts to 80 percent of its business property taxes for the first five years it is in operation.

But here’s the rub: even though the request has the endorsement of the county Economic Development Commission, it doesn’t meet existing criteria for the tax break. Specifically, to get the 80 percent tax break the county’s guidelines say the project needs to create 100 jobs and have an investment of at least $10 million. This project is expected to employ 12 as it’s built and no one after it is up and running, and it already qualifies for the federal government’s 30 percent solar energy tax break.

Projects like this are appealing for many reasons, one of which is the “coolness” factor. That line of thinking says if you support green projects, you are cool and everyone will want to join in. But that’s a weak foundation for county policy.

If Haywood wants to become an epicenter of green energy and environmentalism, giving a one-time handout to a solar farm won’t get it there. Instead, county leaders need to develop an array of tax breaks, grants and incentives for new businesses engaged in green technology and for existing businesses that become energy efficient and recycle. In this case the fact that old landfill property is being used is probably more significant than the solar energy aspect of the project.

The green initiative being led by Haywood Community College President Rose Johnson and flourishing under the auspices of HCC and the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce should be encouraged and embraced. The county’s effort to get methane energy from the old landfill is also worth touting. The role of the Commission for a Clean County should be expanded and officially endorsed by the county.

Yes, Haywood County could benefit immensely by becoming a leader in all things green, and businesses and people in the mountains have been embracing this philosophy for decades. But there is a competition out there. Local governments across the nation are also trying to grab this mantle. Haywood needs a long-term plan and a real investment to get there. Helping this company might be symbolic of where the county wants to go, but approving this tax break isn’t really all that progressive. In fact it is simply applying an old-style economic development model to a new industry.

We wish FLS great success, and solar energy is a crucial component for meeting future energy needs. From Haywood County’s perspective, however, approving this tax break at this time is like putting the cart before the proverbial horse.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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