What is economic development?
Economic development is often misunderstood – partially because it is defined differently depending on where you live. How economic development is done in a community depends on various factors.
Is the area rural or urban? Is the local economic development entity a function of the County or is it a public/private partnership? Is economic development funded through a direct appropriation or through municipal budgets?
In Burke County the economic development organization, Burke Development, Inc., is a public/private partnership funded by the County, municipalities and the Committee of 100. A staff of four, reporting to a Board of Directors, consisting of members of the funding agencies, is the agency responsible for these tasks.
When many people think of their local economic development office they think about ribbon cuttings on the front page of the paper for a new business locating to the area; however, there is a lot more to it than that. In Burke County, the stated goal of economic development is to support and promote the development of jobs, investment and wealth within the community. There is a focus on improving the quality of life for all residents through long term, sustainable strategies.
Promoting the development of jobs can occur through recruitment, which tends to receive the most attention, but more importantly, through support of existing industry, where 80 to 90% of job growth is fueled in rural communities. Ensuring resources are in place to develop healthy and scalable businesses is also a key to increasing wealth in a community.
The work of an economic developer does not exist in a bubble and changes vastly over time based on current needs and opportunities. For example, a large asset for Morganton and the rest of Burke County over the next few years is the Broughton property. There is a huge opportunity for local leaders to work with the state to redevelop the 1,200 acres into a project that drives economic growth – not just for the County but for the region.
Economic development itself has changed over the past two decades. More states are switching to a public/private model – as North Carolina did in 2014. States are also constantly evaluating incentive policies and Counties are as well. Traditionally, Counties provide incentives based on the number of jobs a company will create and their taxable investment.
At an increasing rate counties – especially rural ones – are evaluating incentives on a deeper level. They consider factors such as: Do these jobs match up with our citizens’ skill sets? What is the quality of the jobs being created? Will the company provide benefits? Is the company committed to the County for the long term? It is important to realize that incentives will not make an inferior site good, or make an unacceptable project suddenly shine; they should be used judiciously to enhance opportunities and to seal the deal with new and existing industries.
While economic development is very diverse it should always be a strategic process. Developers must partner with leaders of the community to enhance the economic activity of the area. Concentrated and well-planned activities can increase the economic health of the County and improve opportunities for all.