My print column this week deals with leftover thoughts from the State of Alamance panel discussion on Friday.
Everybody knows the drill.
It starts with a rumor here, a loose lip or two there. Next thing you know, the news is out that a full-blown mystery company is looking at property for some new industrial venture. The mystery company isn’t named, of course, which is why it’s a known as mystery company to start with. See, some things in life do make sense.
As it turns out, recruiters from the area Chamber of Commerce are hush-hush about this mystery company. County or city officials aren’t saying much either — except for perhaps one who will drop a hint to a hungry reporter desperate to do a story. Sometimes these industrial recruitment projects have colorful code names like the ones used for military operations. Such tactics are used so people who might overhear at restaurants or bars won’t become suspicious when men in business suits talk openly about “Operation Visible Panty Line.”
Eventually, a small and somewhat speculative story might appear in the local newspaper. The recruiters and elected officials warn that loose talk could certainly squash the deal and that people doing so should be ashamed of themselves.
Always set things up to blame the media for potential failure. Why not?
Then, a week or two later, an announcement comes via e-mail or fax. There will be a large public event with tents, and folding chairs and everything.
This mystery company suddenly has a name. It’ll bring a number of jobs over a certain period of time.
The governor arrives, bands play, speeches are made, government offices take a holiday, heavy snacks may or may not be available depending upon the size of the company and number of jobs it’s planning to bring. And local politicians crash into one another in a chain-reaction style interstate pile-up trying to take credit for it.
Now this is a scenario that seems to play out in one North Carolina community or another every other month or so. The governor’s office always sends out press releases via e-mail anytime she’s about to make a public appearance so this stuff does become widely known. And this is the kind of public appearance Gov. Bev Perdue likes to make. In the governoring game it beats the heck out of declaring states of emergency and begging irrationally hard-headed people to leave the beach in front of a category 3 hurricane.
But it’s a scene unseen in Alamance County in a long, long time.
While there might have been a couple of small ones, the last truly big industrial announcement for this area might date back to July 2007 when Honda Aero made the decision to operate from a planned — and now real — facility at Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport.
The governor then, by the way, was Mike Easley. The operation’s code name? “Big Wing.”
It’s also not fiction that jobs are going to a variety of places all around Alamance County. Wake, Guilford, Forsyth and other counties are included in those press releases from the governor’s office fairly often.
Burlington Mayor Ronnie Wall, who sat on a panel for Friday’s State of Alamance breakfast, noticed the same thing. He asked himself the question posed by thousands of others as unemployment remains in double-digits here. “Why isn’t Alamance County getting those jobs?”
Wall said it’s obviously not location. Alamance County, after all, is situated at what Alamance County Chamber of Commerce president Mac Williams calls “Main Street” — if interstates 40 and 85 could be considered Main Street for North Carolina. It has nothing to do with the state’s convoluted tier economic system or available property. There’s a large available labor force — one that might need to be retrained for modern industries — but it’s here. Wall talked to economic development experts and others in the field.
“I still don’t have any answers,” he said.
Actually, it might be that there are far too many potential answers and some aren’t particularly palatable to many in the community.
The panel of Alamance Community College President Martin Nadelman, Wall and Williams hit on more than a few Friday. Eliminating the recruitment boundaries between the county, cities and towns was one. If Mebane gets a business, all in the county win, for example. Setting up facilities at ACC to retool the workforce was another. Could that mean a bond referendum for new buildings on the campus? Perhaps. The college needs the space. And could it mean investing in land, putting in water and gas lines then just giving it away to a business? As weird as it might sound, possibly.
And does it mean Alamance County taking extra steps to stand out in a crowd of suitors? Probably. Even if it means incentives, which everyone loves to hate. Me, too.
“We love our community and rightly so,” Williams said. “But to industries communities are commodities. While we’re a great community there’s someone out there that is also a great community and it’s willing to do a little bit more.”
A quote from Glen Raven chief Allen Gant was often cited throughout Friday’s event. “Compete or lose.” Gant likes to say.
And then there was this from Williams. “What do you want to spend your money on, growth or decline,” he asked.
It’s a fair question.