Cronyism and Govt cash not the best way to give long-term boost to economy

welcomeMOOREWe’ve got it pretty good here in Moore County.  One of the lowest tax rates (and crime rates) in North Carolina.  World-class golf courses.  Lots of great dining and shopping.  Plenty of cultural opportunities.  Pretty good schools.  A great place to raise a family or retire.  Southern Pines and Pinehurst are world-renowned and highly-respected. 

Yet, we’ve got some folks here among our political establishment that think we need to throw some serious tax dollars at promoting the place.  Take this piece, for instance, from Walter Bull in our local Pulitzer Prize-nominated, brought down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets, thrice twice weekly newspaper:

Last month, I was very disappointed to see the Moore County commissioners turn their backs on a previously stated intention to support economic development with some public funding.

Lost in the process was an opportunity to cobble together public and private resources in the form of leadership and investment for a process that will ultimately benefit all sectors of Moore County.[…]

What’s he talking about?  Oh, the demand by some establishment figures that the taxpayers pick up the $150,000-plus tab for a web site promoting Moore County.  Partners in Progress, a non-profit funded with tax dollars from the county and the county’s municipalities, wants to launch a web site modeled on this one promoting The Research Triangle. 

Partners — an organization devoted to promoting economic growth here in Moore County — appeared to be snubbing scores of qualified Moore County-based web designers to pay a Triangle-based firm this outrageously-high fee.  They also appeared to be ignoring the fact that there are already at least a dozen functioning web sites out there promoting living, working and retiring in Moore County.

I know the writer Mr. Bull.  He is a good guy, but we have fundamental disagreements on things.  For one, he — to put it mildly — was a BIG FAN of former state Rep. Richard Morgan.  I — to put it mildly — WAS NOT.  

I also disagree with Walter here.  County Commissioner Nick Picerno has a pretty good perspective on the kerfluffle: 

[…] Moore County officials say they are not backing off their support for a marketing initiative built around a new website to promote the area as a place to live and work.

An item regarding funding for “Moore Opportunity” was removed from the agenda for the county commissioners’ meeting last week without explanation. But board members said afterward it had nothing to do with a threatened protest by Moore Tea Citizens, which had marshalled its forces to oppose what the group called a “misguided and inappropriate project” and “wasteful use of public funds.”

The conservative group had heard prior to the meeting that the item would not be discussed.

“That was really not a driving force in this,” board Chairman Nick Picerno said in an interview after the meeting. “I have no problem about bringing jobs to Moore County. We want them to go forward with it.

“We have no new tax dollars to spend on it this year. We will not let them fail in this. We will explore alternative ways to supplant the need for new dollars by diverting existing funds on economic development in next year’s budget.”

Picerno said he and Commissioner Randy Saunders, who make up the board’s economic development task force, had already talked about finding alternative ways to provide support without using new tax dollars.


He said the county provided $100,000 in funding in this year’s budget for economic development through Partners in Progress and then provided $15,000 to help attract First Bank’s corporate headquarters to Southern Pines. Local businesses, he added, should consider supporting the new initiative, since they stand to benefit.

“Maybe First Bank will kick in some money,” Picerno said. “It will help their business and a lot of other businesses.”

He also made it clear that the county’s support is based on seeing “measurable results.”

There are actually a number of things — that a web site can’t help — that hinder a traditional industrial development strategy here in Moore County:

1.  The tier system:  The state provides tax incentives at rates staggered according to the level of economic distress in each county.  In other words, the worse off the county is where you locate your business, the more goodies you get from state government.  This policy keeps Moore County — with all of its prosperity — uncompetitive with its poorer neighbors in the chase for new business.  Executives want to live here, but they set up their business facilities in surrounding counties where the government incentives are better.

2.  Lack of quality office space:  Partners talks about wanting to encourage entrepreneurs to set up shop here.  We have no business incubators for housing start-ups.  We have little to no suitable and affordable office space.  (Most of the office space being developed caters to physicians tied to FirstHealth’s in-county facilities.)

Partners has acquired some kind of arrangement with the old Razook’s building in historic downtown Pinehurst — a former top drawer dress shop — to offer as an incubator.  Never mind the lack of parking downtown, and its incompatibility with 18-wheeler traffic making deliveries.  Many  entrepreneurs look for facilities with adequate warehouse space reasonably close to major transportation hubs — like railroads, US 1, I-95 or the port in Wilmington.

Utility firms — like Progress Energy, Duke Power, Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation, and Lumbee River EMC — have developed business incubators in other geographic areas.  They trade off low rents for relationships — providing current and future service to the tenants. 

3 Geography: Moore County is well off the beaten path when it comes to the major transportation hubs.  Granted, we’ve got US 1 going through Aberdeen and Southern Pines.  But setting up in Scotland County or Robeson County puts you very close to I-95, US 74 (leading to the port at Wilmington), and the railroad.  You also get much better tax incentives and other freebies for locating in places like that. We need to forget competing with those folks for out of state plants that will pick up and move to another state, or another country, for $1 extra in savings. 

4.  Planning and Regulations: Trying to expand an existing business or set up a new one can be quite a maddening experience in Pinehurst or Southern Pines, two of the county’s most populous, most strategically located municipalities. The bureaucracies there are great at putting up walls of red tape and making you jump through hoops that delay your projects and run up the costs.  A mindset that focuses on helping business owners meet their needs and solve their problems — while protecting the interests of local residents — could be a huge help.

The takeaway from all this?  Don’t blow money on another web site.  We don’t have a marketing problem here.  We’ve got great resources here for living and raising a family.  Our tax situation is very fair and reasonable  Let’s concentrate on developing some quality spaces for businesses to set up shop.  You don’t have to twist people’s arms to live here.  If you want them to set up their businesses here, ease the path for doing it.