By Justin Jones, Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2013 —
The newly appointed members of Albemarle’s Economic Development Task Force met with city council members for the first time Monday evening to deliver their recommendations.
The task force was assembled in the fall and had been meeting frequently, discussing their own ideas and hearing from business leaders from outside the county.
They have been aided by Crystal Morphis, a facilitator from Creative Economic Development Consulting. Those meetings were focused on what Albemarle could improve upon to attract new businesses among other ways of growth.
The joint meeting, which took place in the Community Room at Albemarle City Hall, lasted for nearly an hour and a half, as Morphis led a slideshow that worked through several observations and ultimately arrived at recommendations by the task force.
The task force looked at a 2004 Economic Develop-ment Strategic Plan, analyzed strengths and weaknesses and used a community survey to arrive at their results.
While the task force recommendations hit on several different areas, two prominent areas emerged from the meeting — Albemarle’s need for a branding exercise and cooperation with the Stanly County Economic Develop-ment Commission (EDC) for partnership in economic development.
Morphis said the branding exercise would need to be through a professional firm.
“This relates to the ability to brand and market this community, to attract business, to attract tourists, to attract new residents to the community, to encourage young people to stay in the community,” she said.
“You’ll need a professional to bring that brand together and then strategize on how to implement that brand throughout everything the city does and through your partner agencies.
“Who you were 20 to 25 years ago may not be who you are today. It definitely may not be how you want to present yourself in the future to try to attract visitors, new residents and new businesses.”
The second primary theme that emerged, which was the involvement of the Stanly County EDC, will require cooperation between Albe-marle city council members and Stanly County commissioners.
“The whole purpose of this task force work was to engage the city in economic development. The city wanted to be a more active participant in economic development. It wanted to support stronger economic activities,” Morphis said.
“In a city the size of Albemarle, it is so hard to start a new economic development program. It makes much more sense to leverage those resources with your partners. And your strongest partner is Stanly County.”
But a partnership is a two-way street and city council members feared there may be a roadblock.
“We have tried and tried and tried to get a member of our city council on that economic development (commission), but we are not able to do that. Where do you go now?” Councilwoman Judy Holcomb said.
“We are more than willing to work with EDC and give whatever they need, but they don’t want us in there for some reason.”
Holcomb said city council made contact with the commissioners at least three times last year, but were left without a response.
“What could be different is forming a partnership where you’re both funding partners,” Morphis said.
“You’re coming with money that can add to their resources. It could be you go through with this recommendation, make your best effort, and still not able to form a partnership, but the task force thought it was worth one more try.”
Morphis recommended city council be willing to take an approach of proportional relationship, such as providing equal funding per capita of residents within the city.
“It makes you equal partners based on population,” Morphis said.
“We just got to have some type of way to break up this competition thing,” Council-man Jack Neel said.
“That’s where we need a lot of consulting advice, I think.”
Councilman Dexter Town-send recommended that city council try to gather with the county commission sooner rather than later while the information is new and partners are enthused.
“Stop talking about it in separate venues and try to move forward,” he said.
“I would love for Crystal to give this same presentation for them, but we first got to see if we can get the county, and county EDC to meet with us,” Councilman Ronnie Michael said.
Conversation followed about how difficult that may be.
“It blows my mind that I hear this year after year after year. If they don’t come to the table, get to the people they’re responsible to, to push them here. And, no offense, but if council is doing the same thing, I’d be voting a different way. I don’t get it,” task force member Brian Freeman said.
City council accepted the recommendations by Albe-marle’s Economic Develop-ment Task Force and voted to discuss the presentation and all recommendations at their budget session Feb. 9.
Mayor Whit Whitley, City Manager Ray Allen, task force chair Russ Sharples and co-chair Tracie Sells will send an invitation to meet with County Chairman Gene McIntyre, County Manager Andy Lucas, Stanly EDC Director Paul Stratos and Economic Development Chairman Tony Dennis to ask for a joint meeting.
“I think it’s important that I restate what everyone in the room believes, as you said, it’s the common ground that the city and county has that is so much more important to the foundation and growth of this community,” Sharples said.
“If city council goes into a meeting with assumptions as it’s already been reinforced, I suspect you will get same answers you’ve been getting.
“They have the best of this community at heart. They are the county commission and we need to give those gentleman the opportunity to read the report and have some rationale, objective conversations about it.”
With action approved to be taken in the coming days, city council members thanked the task force for its service to Albemarle, as did Morphis who has worked with them over the past few months.
“The task force has done a tremendous amount of work and has touched on many the core areas of economic development: new business recruitment, job creation, existing business support, small business support, entrepreneurship,” she said.
“Economic Development is a team sport. If you are not collaborating and cooperating with your neighbors, you’re missing a tremendous opportunity.”