Era of good feeling: Two cities pursue economic development

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Nancy Vaughan, Hank Henning & Bill Bencini credit Jordan Green
Nancy Vaughan, Hank Henning and Bill Bencini

by Jordan Green

The elected bodies of Guilford County and the cities of Greensboro and High Point approve a plan to create a single economic development agency.

High Point City Council was a reluctant partner in early discussions with the city of Greensboro and Guilford County last summer about forming a joint economic development alliance.

But on Nov. 20, the three elected bodies gathered in the Guilford County BB&T Building in downtown Greensboro — the first time that anyone could remember them all being in the same room — and voted one after the other to form the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance. The votes of the Guilford County Commission and Greensboro City Council were unanimous, while High Point City Council voted 7-1 to approve the measure. Councilwoman Cynthia Davis cast the lone dissenting vote.

“High Point has done so well in economic development, more so than Greensboro,” Mayor Pro Tem Jim Davis said after the vote. “We wanted to protect High Point’s interest and we didn’t want to be the red-headed stepchild.”

When the talks began last year, Davis was serving as mayor of High Point and Bill Bencini was chair of the county commission. Now, Bencini is the mayor of High Point and Hank Henning is the chair of the county commission. Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan has been the only constant player in the negotiations.

Davis said what won him over to the partnership, in addition to High Point Economic Development Corp. President Loren Hill’s enthusiasm, was the fluid nature of the workforce. He cited the presence of Caterpillar in Winston-Salem as an example.

“High Point benefits from that,” he said. “A lot of people who work there live in High Point. Just like Polo Ralph Lauren in High Point — a lot of people come from Winston-Salem to work there.”

Elected officials touted the joint economic development alliance as a way for the county and its two cities to speak with one voice to companies considering expansion.

“When a business comes here, they’re concerned with the community and the quality of life,” County Commission Chairman Hank Henning said. “They don’t care about the jurisdiction. They want to do what’s best for their business and their customers.”

County Manager Marty Lawing said the agency will allow Guilford County to compete more effectively.

“Economic development is very important and it’s very competitive,” he said. “It drives everything we do as far as tax base. It’s kind of like public speaking: You can’t be too good at it. You have to always be on you’re A-game.”

Loren Hill and Brent Christensen, who lead the cities’ respective economic development agencies, drew up the plans for the new joint agency, which will have a budget of $300,000 to cover the cost of marketing materials and one staff person responsible for research. The county and the two cities will contribute $100,000 each to fund the agency. Lawing said the new agency will target companies that have plans to expand in the next one to three years.

“It allows the Greensboro Partnership and the High Point Economic Development Corp. to retain autonomy but requires them to work so closely that it may appear to outsiders that they’re one group,” Lawing said.

High Point Councilwoman Cynthia Davis, who cast the lone vote against the collaboration, said she had a long list of questions that had not been answered, including whether a “rapid response team” would include elected officials other than the mayors; what the agency’s one staff member would earn; how much would be budgeted for software, marketing and travel; and whether the other towns in Guilford County had been included in discussions.

Elected officials who represent high-poverty areas of Greensboro and High Point expressed concern about whether their districts would receive equitable marketing by the county agency.

After proclaiming that it was a “banner day” for Greensboro, District 1 Councilwoman Sharon Hightower said, “This marketing piece is going to be instrumental to make sure we’re going to be included.”

Councilman Chris Williams, who represents Ward 2 in southeast High Point, remarked, “I represent one of the hardest hit areas in the state — hit hardest with blight and joblessness. So I’m very excited by this. All of us during the campaign promised jobs and economic development, so I see this as fulfilling the promise.”

Councilman Jeff Golden, who represents Ward 1 in east-central High Point, riffed off Williams’ sentiment.

“You go into this and make promises of economic development, and it doesn’t come true,” he said. “So at least today we can say we started a movement.”

County Commissioner Ray Trapp, whose district overlaps with Hightower’s city council district, said he views the new economic development agency as being responsible for landing “big-picture,” or large-scale employers, while the municipalities continue to court smaller players.

“When the Randolph-Guilford mega-site lands that one big fish, it creates the opportunity for ancillary services and suppliers,” he said. “We have tons of unused warehouse space in east Greensboro. People who know their history know the water is in the east. The growth has to happen in the east. We’re there and we’re waiting. You get the car manufacturer at the mega-site, we’re ready to have seat manufacturing or upholstering on Bessemer Avenue or East Market Street.”

Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann, who represents the west-central District 4 on Greensboro City Council, expressed the enthusiasm of many elected officials in the room.

“We live in a global economy today,” she said. “We can’t build fences around jurisdictions.”