Jackson County has been down this road before, but that isn’t stopping leaders from taking another look at forming a local economic development commission.
Or, to be more precise, reconstituting the county’s current Economic Development Commission.
“Because technically, there is an EDC in Jackson County,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.
The county’s current EDC exists in name only, however. It has an office but no director. By-laws but no members. A mission statement but no budget.
The former EDC, which functioned as an independent entity outside county oversight, went defunct in 2005 amid controversy and allegations of financial mismanagement. Three years later, county commissioners formed a new EDC, this time under county control although representatives of each town had seats at the table.
The new attempt fell apart after less than a year, however. The director resigned. The board quit meeting. Members resigned one by one, and neither the county nor towns appointed replacements to fill their seats.
While the EDC technically exists on paper and could be restarted at any time by simply making fresh appointments to the board, Wooten believes that the county’s phantom EDC should probably be dissolved because of what he termed “bad connotations for people.” But, something needs to take its place to spur economic development in Jackson, the county manager said.
A joint meeting of county and town leaders is set for March 5 to discuss the topic. Sylva town board member Harold Hensley, for one, is happy that the county is initiating work again on the economic front.
“I know there’s been a lot of controversy about the EDC,” Hensley said. “But, I think that it could be a good thing if it is run right.”
Hensley emphasized that he’s uncertain in his own mind whether the same EDC structure used previously in Jackson County should be tried again, however.
Dillsboro Mayor Mike Fitzgerald also said he’s pleased county leaders are moving toward formal economic development efforts. But, like Hensley, he was unsure about the form he’d want to see such an effort take.
“But, it needs to be investigated,” Fitzgerald said.
Rough history for EDC
When it comes to EDC boards, Jackson County’s version is extremely unusual among counties in Western North Carolina. While most EDC’s are county-led entities, Jackson County has included town leaders in economic efforts with their own seats on the board. Wooten said he still believes that “you do need to have the municipalities at the table.”
When the EDC was thrust into turmoil in 2005 amid allegations of financial mismanagement and a lack of oversight, town representatives remained at the table even though the county pulled out. It limped along until the county opted to become re-involved.
When the board was reconstituted with a new set of bylaws, a power struggle played out between the county and the towns over who would hold the most authority. Even though the amounts of money being contributed by the county and town to the “joint” effort were disproportionate.
Jackson County kicked in $105,000 for economic development efforts. Each town put in just $1 for each resident, amounting to a few hundred for Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills, and $2,500 for Sylva.
The county’s new EDC director, Dorothea Megow-Dowling, resigned after less than a year, calling the entity dysfunctional. She said the county missed an opportunity by agreeing to reconstitute the board under the same structure rather than dissolving the EDC and creating a new one from scratch.
In response, the then-mayors of Sylva and Dillsboro accused the county of stripping the EDC board of its power and relegating it to a mere advisory role. Additionally, EDC ghosts from the not-so-distant past continued to haunt this newest reconstitution.
A watchdog group called Jackson County Citizens Action Group dogged the county and the members of the EDC, accusing them of financial cover-ups and a lack of diligence in safeguarding public funds.
It remains to be seen what exactly Jackson County and the four towns will do this time around.