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Candidates tackle economic development
Thursday, October 25, 2012
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
With the city consistently having the state’s highest jobless rates, creating jobs and improving the local economy is a major issue concerning Martinsville City Council candidates in the Nov. 6 election.
Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC) records and Virginia Employment Commission figures reveal Martinsville has led the state in unemployment for the past 43 months.
The rates have been double-digit throughout that period, peaking at 21.9 percent in January 2010. In August, the latest month for which figures are available, however, the city’s jobless rate was 15.9 percent.
The city council says it ultimately is responsible for economic development in Martinsville, but the EDC takes the lead role in local efforts to recruit new businesses and industries.
Some local officials have wondered whether the EDC is as effective as it should be in recruiting new companies and if the city is getting its money’s worth for funding it provides the organization each year.
For the current fiscal year that began July 1, the city allocated $279,500 for the EDC. That is down from the $339,500 that the organization got in the two previous fiscal years as well as the $380,000 it got in fiscal 2010 and $400,000 it received in fiscal 2009.
Budget constraints have factored into the decreases, according to city Finance Director Linda Conover.
The four city council candidates seeking three seats on council in the Nov. 6 elections were asked if they favor continuing funding for the EDC and what else the city can do to attract jobs. Their answers appear in rotating order from the last article about them:
“City taxpayers are paying more than county taxpayers” for the EDC, said Turner. “There’s got to be some equity” created.
The county is paying the EDC $460,000 in the current fiscal year. At the city and county levels of funding, based on 2010 Census figures, the city is paying $20.22 per capita while the county is paying $8.49 per capita. calculations show.
However, the most pressing issue related to economic development, he said, is reducing regulations and restrictions with which it is costly for businesses to comply.
“The No. 1 complaint I get” from business people, Turner said, “is that the people at city hall (who enforce regulations) are hard to deal with.”
“Our job is not to create work for the bureaucrats at city hall ... but to get out of the way of our citizens,” he said.
Some of the EDC’s funding requests are unreasonable, Turner said. He cited Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre and shell buildings as examples.
Martinsville has committed a little more than $1.95 million toward the development of Commonwealth Crossing, including grading and the land’s purchase, an EDC report shows.
The site is in southern Henry County near the North Carolina line.
Turner said he understands there is vacant land in the Bassett and Fieldale areas that can accommodate industry and already have water/sewer hookups.
Furthermore, he said he thinks “the majority of people (who will work at a company locating in Commonwealth Crossing) will be from North Carolina.”
They are “not going to leave their jobs and go into uptown Martinsville to shop” and contribute to the local economy, he said.
Shell buildings are not needed, Turner said, because “we’ve got a surplus of vacant buildings” where companies could locate.
If a company needs a building designed to unique specifications, he said, “a virtual (concept) building with (design) plans that can be tweaked can be put up fairly quickly” to help attract the firm.
Turner suggested that the city print business cards with local economic developers’ contact information that residents can take with them out of town and give to other businesses, encouraging them to come here.
Woods said he thinks the EDC generally has done a good job of recruiting companies but its funding should be based on its results.
“Sometimes it’s hard to quantify” the results, he admitted, but “any expenditure needs to be quantified.” He mentioned, for example, that teachers now are held accountable for how well their students perform in testing.
In demonstrating results and how well it uses its funding, the EDC should show “we’re spending X amount of dollars to bring X amount of jobs to the area,” Woods said.
“If they can quantify what they’re doing with hard-and-fast numbers,” the EDC needs to be able to continue its work, he said. After all, he said, somebody must be in charge of efforts to recruit businesses and industries.
Like Turner, Woods said he favors reducing regulations and restrictions on businesses.
Also, “businesses have got to pay their fair share” toward services they receive from the city, Woods said. “Somebody’s got to pay; there’s no free meal.”
But they tell him they are “getting nickeled-and-dimed by bureaucracy” and they are “overwhelmed” with restrictions, he said.
Small businesses with few employees find it hard, for instance, to meet new rules being imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to Woods. He said the city should try to persuade both the federal and state governments to limit their rules and restrictions on businesses.
To help attract companies to the community, Woods said local officials and residents alike must try and make the community look nice.
Family members who have visited him from Virginia Beach and New Jersey have told him “this is a pretty place but it looks run down,” he said.
He said the city should partner with civic organizations on beautification projects.
Woods said residents can get involved through simple measures such as taking along a bag and picking up trash they see when walking their dogs — just as he does.
Sharon Brooks Hodge
Hodge said she generally favors funding the EDC but “it’s time to evaluate” how well it does its job.
She acknowledged there is “a perception (in the community) that the EDC has not delivered” enough results based on the two localities’ investments in the organization.
“The city council should do some numbers-crunching” to see if the city is getting enough return on its investment, Hodge said.
Promoting and encouraging the continued development of the New College Institute (NCI) will help economic development, she indicated.
NCI is “probably one of our best opportunities for growth” in the local economy, Hodge said.
“The world is constantly changing,” and the institute’s 21st-century model for education will prepare students well for future jobs, according to Hodge.
Economic development is not just about finding new jobs but also making sure people have skills and training needed to do jobs that are created, she noted.
Stroud said he favors continuing funding for the EDC at current levels.
Companies it has helped locate in the area — such as RTI International Metals, ICF International and Monogram Foods — are “doing well,” he said.
He noted that the city reduced its funding to the EDC this year. He said, though, that was due to economic constraints.
“A lot of people say we (the city) pay a disproportionate amount” to the EDC, Stroud said, but “I think we’ve gotten our money’s worth.” He said the EDC is staffed by economic development professionals.
“A lot of communities are looking for jobs,” he emphasized. “We’re doing about as well as we can do right now.”
The local economy seems to be doing better, he said, noting that he has seen a lot of ribbon-cuttings for new businesses lately.
Stroud said, however, he wants the EDC to take an active role in recruiting not just industries, but also stores and restaurants that will create jobs and enable area residents to spend money, which also would boost the local economy.
He said he understands the EDC is working on such an effort.
Stroud also suggested that area residents and officials “always be ambassadors for our city” when they travel to other places. For instance, he said, when visiting stores and other businesses elsewhere, people can encourage managers to locate new outlets in Martinsville.