After proving to be an especially hot topic during election season, economic development now tops the agendas for national, state, and local leaders.
Spirited public debates on the issue recently centered on whether a baseball stadium would revitalize downtown Wilmington or if Titan Cement should operate a facility in Castle Hayne.
In a recent interview, Woody White, newly-appointed as Chairman of New Hanover County’s Commission, offered his strategy for growing the local economy.
In the waiting area of Woody White’s elegantly-appointed law offices, it’s impossible to miss the fact that business appears brisk and constant. The receptionist offers apologetic glances to waiting clients while she balances a perpetually-ringing phone on one shoulder. And the front door swings open every few minutes.
White said the area is uniquely positioned to have an immediate impact on local unemployment and two new elements would help get that process underway -- a more business-friendly environment and a county government “better equipped at sending [the] message to come here.”
“Bring your jobs here,” said White. “We have a lot of high-tech, clean-industry folks that look to move all over the globe. Why can’t they move here? Why can’t we invite them and make it easy for them to move here?”
In October of 2011, New Hanover County adopted a new ordinance requiring industrial companies to get a Special Use Permit before they set up shop in the county. Opponents of the Special Use Permit – or SUP – say the ordinance was hastily written as a way to block Titan Cement’s plans for a new facility in Castle Hayne. And, they say, the special use permit process is a major hindrance to bringing companies to the area.
White offers two schools of thought on the evolution of the SUP.
“Some say that ‘No, we were talking about Special Use Permits way back in 2006 and it just happened to happen in 2011.’ Others say, ‘Well, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, why did you guys adopt it – or the prior board adopt it right when Titan was coming into town or coming to the forefront?’”
White says the evidence points to the fact that the SUP process was a direct result of public opposition to Titan Cement.
“First off, I want to make sure that I don’t react and take a position that’s reactionary. I do think in many areas Special Use Permits play a vital and important role in county governments having a say on how many smokestacks they have, for example, [and] where industry moves.”
White said that the county controls a lot of that through zoning laws, and the SUP is another layer on an already-existing process of regulation.
So does New Hanover County Commission Chair White support repealing, rewriting or keeping the Special Use Permit?
“I’m not sure yet,” said White. “But I will say we have got to do a better job recruiting and retaining business here. Notice I didn’t say ‘just industry’ because industry is a part of a very diverse economy here. We have business.”
White cites Castle Branch, an employment screening company, and Whole Foods, the national grocery chain that opened a store in Wilmington last year. Neither of those businesses, says White, have smokestacks.
“Now do we want industry? We do. Because we have to have a full-functioning economy to address our workforce needs. We have a community college and a university. So it’s not responsible, I think, for us to say, ‘We want NO industry. You’re not welcome here.’”
On the other hand, White said that the county shouldn’t be focused entirely on signing up industry. What the county really needs, according to White: a comprehensive economic development policy.
“And where the Special Use process plays into that is one that is going to unfold over the next year or two, I suspect,” said White.