In January some of the Swansboro Board of Commissioners were surprised to learn that the Swansboro Economic Development Committee existed.
The revelation – it came by way of a letter of recommendation pertaining the town’s future transportation needs – prompted a call to discuss the committee and how it come into being. That happened at the board’s May 10 meeting.
The discussion included Mark Sutherland, executive director of the Jacksonville-Onslow Economic Development Council. He was there for the organization of the Swansboro Economic Development Committee in October 2020. “They invited me to attend their seminal meeting,” he said.
Along with offering information on the economic development committee, Sutherland offered a brief presentation on the town’s Strategic Operating Plan – which he helped put together in 2018.
Sutherland opened the discussion by offering words of praise about the 23-member Economic Development Strategic Plan Committee for its work. He led the committee in 2018. The committee produced the plan that contained the source of the town’s EDC.
“Of all the plans I‘ve done in my career, and I’ve done a lot of them … they turned out what I think is the best plan,” Sutherland said.
In information provided to the commissioners on May 10, Sutherland listed the four goals of the town’s Strategic Operating Plan. They include:
• Develop as a connected community in order to maximize local economic and social interaction.
• Improve and protect the town’s natural environment in order to attract new residents and maximize the town’s economic development potential.
• Foster and improve the town’s sense of place in order to attract residents, visitors, and business investment.
• Actively recruit new businesses; support the expansion of existing businesses; and expand the physical accommodation of growth.
Of concern to at least some of the town commissioners is the Swansboro Economic Development Committee, how it came to be and how involved it would be with the fourth goal.
Mayor John Davis, who recruited the initial membership for the EDC in October 2020, provided his thoughts on how the town came to have an EDC.
“It was my understanding and I believe your understanding,” Davis said to Sutherland, that the Strategic Operating Plan called on the town “to form an economic development committee … and that was done … and perhaps could have been done better … with better communications.”
Sutherland pointed out that at end of the steering committee’s work in May 2018 a comment was made that the town should have an EDC. He said he works with similar groups throughout the county. Those types of committees or councils are often private in nature, formed by private individual who can operate to recruit business and industry without the constraints of a local government.
While acknowledging the importance of public-private partnerships in recruiting suitable business and industry, Commissioner Frank Tursi sought some clarification as to how involved the town could or should be with the EDC.
Recruiting business “is very important.” Tursi said. And, he added, he understands the importance of public-private partnerships. But, he said, “That is a major activity, to actively recruit business.” Should that be in the hands of a private committee? “The commissioners have to answer to the taxpayers,” he continued, “should not the town have some influence in the development of this group … provide leadership for this group?”
More than once, Davis mentioned a lack of communication as the source of the problem in establishing the EDC. But he also pointed out that Commissioner Larry Philpott was among the initial group of EDC invitees, though he was no longer active.
In reference to the comment, Philpott said he supported the committee, but he also said he believed there should be more town involvement.
Sutherland said different recruitment groups of this nature take on many forms and in some cases local governments are involved, but not always.
“These committees of entrepreneurs and business owners are not new,” Sutherland said. “They can do things that government can’t do.” A private group is able to “wine and dine” a prospective investor, so to speak, while a government entity may not be able to that.
Essentially, it is not unusual for private citizens to take the lead in attracting business and industry to a community, Sutherland explained. But in Swansboro, among the town commissioners, “A couple want the town to be in some level of control.”
Sutherland points out thought that the committee working on Swansboro’s behalf should not be limited in scope. “They really need to take in the greater area,” he said, even if “the town will be a part of it.”
During the May 10 meeting Davis asked Roy Herrick, a former town commissioner and chairman of the town’s EDC, to offer his impression of the EDC.
“We started this committee with the mayor and Larry Philpott on the committee,” Herrick said. He said the plan has always been to work closely with the town. “That was what our desire was, to work through the town. For whatever reason, that just didn’t materialize. In our committee we have two county commissioners. We are certainly not trying to close anything out.”
Philpott said that he did attend the first few meetings, and he said that he does not have a problem with the EDC being a private entity.
“The thing that concerned me … is the board of commissioners was not brought on at the same time as the committee,” he said. “I think it’s very important that there is a relationship. It was a component of the town itself.”
He said timing had an effect on the committee’s rollout, noting Hurricane Florence interrupted the strategic plan’s implementation. “It’s been kind of a bumpy road in terms of getting this off the ground,” Philpott said.
Tursi said that the committee’s formation actually missed a step. He referred to a “white paper” report that should have been prepared to form the committee.
Davis asked Sutherland if that is what he recalled. Sutherland said it could have been done either way: either public, by the town; or private. But he also has said, “The implementation plan called for a white paper to be developed by the steering committee.”
Tursi referred to the plan calling for the formation of the EDC as an “action item.”
“We approved the plan, that has an action item, that hasn’t been done,” he said. “Had we followed what seemed to be a very reasonable course, maybe we could have avoided all of this,” a situation he referred to as a “tangle.”
“Now it’s up to this board to see how that happens. If that is the desire of the board, then the board has to decide how to do that,” he said.
Tursi suggested the commissioners bring back as many members of the Economic Development Strategic Plan Committee as possible with the task of producing recommendations – the “white paper” – to move the plan’s goals forward.
“We have to recreate in some form or fashion the steering committee,” he said.
Davis said it was his hope that the existing EDC be involved in some fashion.
“I’m glad the commissioners have taken ownership,” the mayor said.
He said that it is important the town follow through on this and all of the plans in which Swansboro is invested.
Chris Seaberg, town manager, said that the process of producing the white paper is “in the works.”
It is expected that the white paper will determine more precisely the terms and direction of the town’s EDC.
“It’s important that we partner with the town,” Herrick said.
As for the Jacksonville-Onslow Development Council, Sutherland said the committee, however it is oriented, would be among its priorities.
“We’re here to support,” he said.
Email Jimmy Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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