Local leaders communed this week to discuss pulling the county out of its current doldrums.
On Thursday, 16 economic, educational, and elected leaders met at the Laurinburg City Council chambers with a common goal: to develop an informal partnership dedicated to restoring economic prosperity to Scotland County.
“The common thing that I’ve heard about economic development is that we can’t get our arms around exactly what we’re supposed to be doing, and I think that’s the big point,” said County Manager Kevin Patterson. “When it comes to recruitment or working on a project, the county is great, we can work on that and bring in the assets we need. But changing the community, changing the whole economy here, nobody has arms long enough to actually get your arms all the way around it, and that’s why we have to work together.”
The meeting was called by Laurinburg Mayor Tommy Parker to unite community entities with even a peripheral involvement in economic development, such as Scotland County’s Tourism Development Authority.
“In a lot of ways, I think, and I hear this from our board members, a lot of whom are small businesspeople here in this community, sometimes we feel like we’re one of those random acts of improvement,” said TDA board member Nick Sojka. “We feel like we’re kind of nibbling at the edges of economic development.”
Dr. Dale McInnis, president of Richmond Community College, noted that Scotland County currently has no economic development team, a measure that has proven success in Richmond County.
“When Discovery Place Kids decided to locate in Rockingham, one of the key factors they used was our recent civic index that outlined what we were trying to do and where we were going,” McInnis said.
Attendees spoke in favor of consolidating economic development efforts and streamlining priorities.
“Years ago when I was at the hospital, I participated in a fellowship program, and there was a community out in Missouri where the health of the children had become everybody’s priority,” said Becca Hughes, chairperson of the Laurinburg/Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce. “I always thought that was a fascinating process that the city council, the health care system, and the county commissioners all said our top three goals are what can we do for kids under six.”
McInnis provided anecdotal support for teamwork under pressure, referencing Scotland Early College High’s move from Richmond Community College to St. Andrews University.
“Just a year and a half ago, we were faced with a challenge in the school system and the county of being able to sustain the early college high school program,” McInnis said. “It was obviously successful, obviously working, but it was going to cost a tremendous amount of money to keep it on the campus in Hamlet.
McInnis said it took a sense of urgency for the schools, college and county to come together with the university in a four-way partnership.
“What did we do to make it happen? We had the meetings before the meetings, we talked with each other, and we had a basis of trust to work from,” he said.
Scotland Health Care System CEO Greg Wood also provided an example of how partnerships can allow entities access to resources.
“We still have these vertical silos that have to be there - you’ve got to have a city, you’ve got to have a county, you’ve got to have a chamber, but we have some real, capital ‘p’ partnerships where we’re employing physicians and we’re signing agreements with one of our principal competitors, Moore Regional, to provide cardiovascular services,” said Wood. “At the same time I have a management agreement with somebody working out of Charlotte.”
Some spoke of eradicating the feeling of negativity fostered by many Scotland County residents by the county’s high unemployment rate.
“I come back to this thing about focusing on the positives, and to me that’s where we fall down,” said Bob Davis, chairman of the Scotland County Board of Commissioners. “Not necessarily the people sitting around this table, but the folks in the community, and we need somehow to change that. Everywhere you go you hear we have the highest tax or this or that, and if we could just get rid of that baggage - it’s up to you and I to do that.”
Sojka said many of his fellow residents are frustrated and sad.
“It’s beyond just what’s good for business and how do we balance the budget,” Sojka said. “At some level, I think it becomes a moral issue: are we doing everything we can to help our brothers and sisters in this community, and are we doing it the right way.”
Although those invited to the meeting each have a specific and specialized focus within the county, ultimately their goals are shared.
“Maybe there’s a way that we can keep doing what we’re doing with that laser-light focus on things like the Highland Games and putting heads in beds, but also contribute to the greater vision that we’re all a part of,” Sojka said of the TDA. “If the community crumbles around us and the county can’t sustain basic services over the long haul from a fiscal perspective, nobody’s going to want to come here to spend a weekend.”
Greg Icard, Scotland County’s economic development coordinator, and Parker both referred to a recent attempt to recruit a Caterpillar facility to Scotland County, highlighting the point that industrial recruitment is rarely the sole concern of one county.
“We have had good news year after year, but most of it has been smaller, and that’s kind of the trend in the economic development world, especially for small rural counties,” Icard said.
He said the problem stems from not having a large enough workforce in the county.
“That’s one of our issues when you start doing a larger recruitment such as Caterpillar,” Icard said. “They knew they were going to pull from a 60-mile radius because they knew we didn’t have enough in our county to support the workforce that they needed. They were willing to come here because they’d done the math and they knew the workforce in a 60 mile radius and they were satisfied with that.”
Parker spoke of the importance of presenting a unified front and a holistic view of the county to potential industry.
“I look back to when Greg [Icard] was recruiting Caterpillar, which we had great hopes for,” said Parker. “Greg Wood was in the meeting. People do look at quality health care and job training through RCC - Dale was there. Rick Stout was there to talk about the school system, so people do look at the quality of life issues; they look at your community as a whole. I thought we put a good presentation together that day and frankly to this day I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to reel that big industry in.”
Icard also mentioned Scotland County’s Small Business Innovation Center, scheduled to be completed in November.
“Still doing the recruitment piece, we’re also diversifying our approach, and that’s really some of the things we’ve been working on in the last couple of years,” Icard said. “The SBIC is being more proactive, more aggressive toward job creation in the community - growing people who are here locally, helping them to be successful so that they stay here and spend their dollars within the community. That’s really what this thing has become.”
Short-term ideas for improvement discussed included a one-cent increase in the county tax rate to be directed specifically toward economic development.
“A penny generates, what, $180,000,” asked Sojka. “Think if we had that money. We’re sitting here today - we have an industrial recruiter who’s working his tail off; he’s got no staff, no front porch office that’s visible in our community. We’ve got nobody recruiting retail, we have no community marketing campaign.”
Gene McLaurin, currently Rockingham mayor and scheduled to face Republican opposition this November for the District 25 state Senate seat, also attended.
“It was Yogi Berra, the great philosopher, who said that when you come to a fork in the road, you need to take it, meaning you need to move forward in one direction and do something, and it sounds like that’s what you’re doing,” said McLaurin. “This is a really wonderful community, and I think the pride that is here is so evident this morning as all of you have spoken about your vision and your hopes and dreams for the future.”
Wood mentioned the current hiring process for the vacant Chamber of Commerce presidency as an immediate move toward improvement in the county’s economic environment. Wood also said it would be hard to hire a strong, innovative leader without additional resources.
“Let’s get somebody special,” he said. “Let’s get somebody who can help integrate, catalyze, lead the structural relationships that can lead us to the next bold step.”
Other attendees included Scotland County Schools Superintendent Rick Stout, Laurinburg Downtown Revitalization Corporation Chairman Jim Willis, Laurinburg City Manager Ed Burchins, David Burns, Scotland County Division of Workforce Solutions Manager Betty Galloway and former State Rep. Doug Yongue.
Parker noted that invitees came to the table with an open mind without an agenda.
“I didn’t see anybody trying to protect anything, which means we’re all together,” said Parker. “I thought it would be that way, but it was reassuring that nobody was trying to protect their little kingdom. There was good flow of information and ideas, and I think the resources were available around the table. I’m pleased, but we’ve got to follow up. With things that have been done in the past, I don’t think there was a lot of follow up.” At the summit’s conclusion, Parker expressed an intention for similar meetings to continue in the future.