“I am not familiar with the success or lack thereof in the past. But my impression of that is it is important for someone to step into this role,” said Rich Price, 46, the newly named county economic development director.
Price said he doesn’t have a magic wand.
“The intent is to put someone in this role who can marshal in a concerted fashion all the stakeholders that are eager to see success in the umbrella of economic development,” Price said. “My goal will be to hopefully create synergies and alignments with the county’s strategic plan.”
His first day on the job was Monday, with an annual salary of $71,000. Price will work in tandem with the county’s newly formed Business and Industry Advisory Committee but will report to County Manager Chuck Wooten.
Price is a living example of the long, painful adjustment to a new economy in Western North Carolina. The son of a textile factory manager, Price grew up in Lake Lure when the state’s manufacturing industry was still robust.
But Price followed a different career path, working for the past 12 years as an executive with Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort. He climbed the corporate ladder at Harrah’s to become the director of casino marketing, a role he was in for seven years.
Price wasn’t among the first batch of applicants when the county initially advertised the position. But with a stack of applicants mostly from outside the region, the county put out a second call for applications, hoping to attract takers with a vested interest in the region and a local knowledge base.
Price said friends in the business community encouraged him to apply.
“You first scratch your head a bit and say, ‘Well that’s really not my background,’” Price said. “As I started talking with friend and colleagues in the county, I realized this position needed a skill set that was very similar to my own. Someone who is strong in strategic planning and someone who has some salesmanship.”
Price, who lives in Whittier, was laid off from Harrah’s last year due to corporate restructuring that eliminated his position. But he had stayed in the region during what he called a “career transition.”
“My hope was that I could remain in this area,” Price said.
Price is now convinced his fresh, unjaded perspective is just what the county needs.
“It is a wonderful place to live, work and play, and what we want to do is enhance and leverage that and keep the current business base strong and profitable and also look at smart growth options that would benefit the county,” Price said. “To be able to do that in a place where I want to stay and make my home for the foreseeable future is a really special feeling.”
Price came to the region as a student at Western Carolina University, graduating in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and has been an active as an alumnus on the WCU Catamount Club board for many years.
The tumultuous past of Jackson’s economic development arm
• 2005: The Jackson County Economic Development Commission — then a joint consortium of the county, towns, Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College — imploded amid allegations of financial mismanagement. Concerned by the lack of oversight of public funds, the county withdrew from the EDC and seized the organization’s records.
• 2005-2008: The Jackson Economic Development Commission existed only on paper as a defunct entity with no director.
• 2008-2010: The county enlisted the services of two separate auditing firms to help piece together the history of EDC’s finances, to no avail.
• 2008: Jackson County commissioners and leaders of all four towns formally dissolved the old EDC and reconstituted it under a slightly new structure, but one that still functioned as consortium. An EDC director was hired.
• 2009: The EDC director resigned, citing frustrations over a dysfunctional model based on power-sharing between the towns and county. Several members of the EDC resigned en masse, complaining that they weren’t empowered to do anything. It continued to be haunted by the baggage of allegedly unaccounted funds.
• 2009-2012: The Jackson County Economic Development Commission once again went defunct and existed only as a phantom entity on paper.
• 2013: Jackson County commissioners and all four towns in the county agreed to dissolve the EDC — again. The county set-up a new Business and Advisory Council and named a full-time director, under the sole purview of the county.