More than 70 local business leaders packed the Ingram Room at South Piedmont Community College’s Lockhart-Taylor Center on Wednesday for the first-ever Anson Economic Development Summit.
The summit was organized by the Anson Economic Development Corporation and the Anson County Chamber of Commerce, and hosted by SPCC. Described on the agenda as “A local conference to discuss the current state of Anson County economic development, generate ideas and further discussion,” the event garnered praise from state lawmakers, county leaders and many others in attendance.
Former SPCC president and AEDC member Don Altieri said he was very pleased with the turnout. “We’ve got a really good mix — we’ve got college trustees, chamber members, school board members, county commissioners,” he added.
First up on the agenda, Mary Beck gave an overview of the grants available to Anson County that would spur economic development, including Community Development Block Grants, as well as grants from new agency, the Rural Infrastructure Authority, Department of Natural Resources and others.
“We have probably received over $100 million in grants since I’ve been here,” Beck said.
Agriculture & Anson
Farmer Dale Nelson spoke about “Agribusiness and the Anson Economy,” saying, “it’s something we’ve all overlooked and taken for granted, yet it’s something we all do at least three times every day. That’s eating. “
Nelson explained that one farmer can feed as many as 155 people. In North Carolina, he said, agriculture employs 642,000 people. However, land in North Carolina has been developed rapidly, increasing from 3.6 million acres to 7.8 million acres in recent years. “We are losing our farm land,” Nelson said. “We’re becoming better farmers on less acres.”
According to statistics from Anson County Cooperative Extension, Anson County received $183 million in agriculture revenue last year. “There are 486 farmers in Anson County,” Nelson added. “Do the math.”
Nelson shared more stats about agriculture in Anson: the county ranks ninth in the state in boiler production, eighth in turkey production, fourth in forestry, 37th in corn, 23rd in swine and 10th in livestock. He pointed to various projects currently under way that could help Anson improve on those statistics, including the new agri-civic center. The center, he said, could host livestock sales, horse shows, meetings and more. There’s also a project with Anson New Tech, teaching 150 high school students to live off the land. Pee Dee Wildlife Refuge is also growing non-GMO grains, and farmer Gary Sikes is raising heritage chickens.
Anson County could benefit from a processing facility, he pointed out. “I raise cows, pigs and chickens, but I can’t smoke a ham,” Nelson explained. “I can’t do value-added products. We’ve got a huge opportunity to have a processing facility here.”
Nelson finished his presentation by talking about a project he’s working on with ACCESS to provide protein and vegetables, and prep them in the commercial kitchen at SPCC to create crockpot meals that people could purchase.
Manufacturers Speak Out
Chuck Horne of Hornwood, also the chairman of the AEDC, and Jarvis Woodburn of Columbus McKinnon, also a county commissioner, took part in a “Manufacturers Round Table” as part of Wednesday’s summit.
Moderator and Wadesboro Town Manager Alex Sewell asked Horne and Woodburn what are the single greatest challenges their industry faces. Woodburn responded that his company has no problem finding employees who are trainable, but there is a challenge finding qualified employees who are already trained. Horne said his biggest challenge is global competition. He explained that the federal government is considering a trade negotiation called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which would essentially make Vietnam the leader in textile manufacturing. “If it comes to pass,” Horne said, “it will probably be the death knell for the textile industry in America.”
On the other hand, Sewell asked the gentlemen what they feel is their biggest opportunity in their respective industry. Horne said that there is an effort to bring textile product manufacturing back to this hemisphere, called “reshoring.” “We are being more aggressive in going after that business,” he said.
Woodburn said that Columbus McKinnon is looking to enhance its products with new features that should lead to greater success.
“What can our local community do to help?” Sewell asked. “We need local government support,” Woodburn said. “In the event that we would be able to expand, they could make those funds available.”
Rep. Mark Brody asked the manufacturers’ opinions on the state government offering incentives to bring business to the state. “We don’t worry about competition setting up next door,” Horne said. “We can compete with whoever comes in.”
Woodburn agreed, and added that incentives were fine, as long as the state gets payback for the incentive. “You’ve got to make sure you’re creating quality product,” he said. The discussion also turned to education. “Not every student can go or wants to go to college,” Woodburn said. “They can go straight into a manufacturing job, if they wish.”
“The idea behind school is that kids go to school in order to one day get a job,” Horne added. “I’m not sure that’s being communicated anymore.”
Both Horne and Woodburn also said it’s difficult to attract young professionals to Anson County. “What we run into with higher-level jobs is that they just don’t care for the small town atmosphere,” Woodburn said.
That then led to the question of how to attract young professionals to the area. “There are a lot of things here in Anson County as far as activities people can do,” Woodburn said. “I think if they just come and give the community a chance, they could really want to live here.”
Sewell said the first thing he did when he found out about the Wadesboro town manager position was to go to the Internet and research Anson County.
Leroy Flowers, who is currently the risk manager for the city of Charlotte but was born and raised in Wadesboro, said he has been “chomping at the bit” to come to the economic development summit and share his ideas for promoting Anson County as a haven for outdoor activities. He said he meets many younger people in Charlotte who would love to have a bicycling or hiking trail in a rural area like Anson County.
“I really believe if we explore outdoor activities in Anson County … it would be a gold mine for us,” he said, adding that outdoor activities has grown into a $646 billion industry in the past year alone.
State Legislators Share Ideas
Sen. Gene McLaurin (District 25 — Anson, Richmond, Rowan, Scotland and Stanly counties), and Reps. Mark Brody (District 55 — Anson and Union counties) and Craig Horn (District 68 — western Union County) took part in a “Legislative Perspectives” panel during the summit.
“I want to begin by commending the leaders in Anson County for putting together this first economic forum,” McLaurin said. “I think it bodes well for Anson County. I’ve been very impressed by the can-do attitude of the people of this county.”
Brody said that he serves “the rural parts” of Union County, in addition to all of Anson County, and that he made a commitment to learn all about Anson County when he took office. He also said he’s made economic development and regulatory reform his main focus.
Though he doesn’t represent Anson, Horn said he grew up in an area much like Anson County. “We are all looking for a place we can live, work and play,” he said.
When Sewell asked what is Anson County’s single biggest barrier to economic development, Horn replied, “We are. Look in the mirror.”
“We’ve got to get out of our own way,” he added, saying that education is a key component and the state also needs regulatory reform.
“I think Anson County is at the right place at the right time for economic development,” Brody said. “I’ve discovered that Anson County has a lot of resources.” McLaurin said he felt that the biggest obstacle rural communities face is finding their niche. He also spoke of the recent coal ash spill on the Dan River, and said it’s imperative for North Carolina to protect its natural resources.
As far as the biggest thing the state can do to promote economic growth, McLaurin said he felt education was the most important. “We need an education system that is second to none,” he said. “If we don’t have a trained work force, we’re not going to be able to attract jobs.”
Brody said he agreed that education is key, but regulatory structure is also important. “If we don’t have incentives to attract business,” he said, “all of the education will be going to grow someone else’s work force. Education will not bring jobs if you don’t have other structures in place.”
Horn spoke of having a vision for 2020. “Where do we want to be by 2020?” he asked. “If you don’t know where you’re going, every road will get you there and ‘there’ is nowhere. You need a vision.”
Chuck Horne asked the legislators their opinions on public/private funding for economic development corporations. Brody explained that changes were needed because groups like the Charlotte Regional Partnership included three counties in South Carolina in their economic development plans, even though South Carolina did not contribute funding. McLaurin said he shares Horne’s concerns about a public/private partnership and how it could have a negative impact on poorer rural counties like Anson. “Public money should be spent on public projects,” he said.
The second half of the Anson Economic Development Summit focused on education, with presentations by Anson County Schools Superintendent Michael Freeman, SPCC president Dr. Stan Sidor and David Hollars on work force development.
Related story by Imari Scarbrough coming soon.