A comprehensive economic development strategy would go a long way toward solving the quagmire that is holding back progress on the Jackson County Economic Development Commission, the EDC board decided this week.
“This is probably the most important issue,” said Joe Cline, the chairman of the EDC. “If we wait until the economy starts turning back around and everybody has done the groundwork and are ready to go, they will be miles ahead of us. We won’t be on a level playing field.”
The EDC has been preoccupied for much of the past year with what its role is. The county, which provides most of the funding for the EDC and employs its director, has provided little direction on what the nine-member volunteer board should be doing. The body is also caught in a power struggle between the county and towns.
It is further plagued by lingering controversy over alleged financial mismanagement dating back several years that remains unresolved. Meanwhile, the EDC director has just resigned, leaving the entity even more rudderless.
Bringing in a consultant and assembling a task force of stakeholders to forge a new direction could be the answer to the problems, Cline said.
“I agree there should be some kind of strategy on the table,” said Cecil Groves, president of the Southwestern Community College and an EDC member. “I think it will take someone out the region, outside the immediate family, to come in and look at this and give some objective approach to get people together and unified in a direction they are comfortable with.”
Cline said the question is how much such a study would cost and who would put up the money. The outgoing EDC director estimated a good one would cost $200,000.
“You almost can’t afford not to do it. It is something that is definitely needed,” Cline said. “But that is a lot of money.”
County leaders have expressed interest in taking a step back and developing a comprehensive economic development strategy under the guidance of a consultant. The EDC has money sitting in its coffers, which has accumulated over several years. The county would have to approve spending the money, however.
EDC members came to a consensus that Cline should approach county leaders to gauge interest and their level of financial support.
Meanwhile, the EDC continues to struggle with how it can complete back audits from the years 2001 through 2005 when records from that period are incomplete.
Larry Morris, an EDC member from Cashiers, said the issue is like an albatross around the board’s neck. Yet since the county, not the EDC, is in control of whatever records do exist there is nothing the board can do but wait.
“I hope they can work in all due haste to resolve this. It seems to be a continuing issue that has lingered on for some time for whatever reason,” said Morris.
“There probably has been some feet dragging somewhat, but it has not been by this body,” Cline said. “I don’t even know where the records are for the years we are talking about. I don’t know who has custody of those at the moment. I agree it has been a frustrating, agonizing process.”
During the period in question, EDC records were kept at the office and home of the EDC chairman Tom McClure, who works in development at WCU. He acted as the body’s de facto director, although he was technically a volunteer. When the county grew concerned over a lack of financial oversight, it sent sheriff’s deputies to seize the records from McClure. Despite operating largely on county funds, the county technically had no authority to seize the records since the EDC was a standalone body, and it had to give them back again. But along the way, some disappeared.
“Those records just went missing. They got gone. There is no good explanation for it,” said Jay Coward, an attorney and member of the EDC.
Cline said the EDC has asked the district attorney and sheriff’s office to figure out if wrongdoing occurred.
“If there was anything done wrong, I don’t care whose doorstep it falls on, it needs to fall,” Cline said.
But no one has been willing to investigate, Cline said.
Cline said the only thing the board can do is make sure history is not repeated by making sure there is proper oversight, something that was lacking back then.
“The county and elected officials should have kept a closer check and eye on what’s going on,” Cline said. “If you are elected to take care of the taxpayers money and you allocated it, then you ought to at least know how those funds are being used. I think all of them share equal responsibility.
“It appears to me that everybody sat back until it got to a certain point and said ‘Wait a minute.’ Everybody tried to get in front of it and close the door to the barn after the cow got out,” Cline said. “Quite honestly, I don’t know if you will ever get totally to the bottom of it.”