Commerce head sees manufacturing jobs returning to NC
by Johnny Woodard
Rural communities are not being forgotten by Raleigh, assured state Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker following a day-long visit to Laurinburg recently.
During a question-and-answer session with local business leaders, government officials and members of the public last week, Decker said that she wants “to get rural North Carolina back into the eye of the storm” with regard to industrial recruitment and job creation.
With the recent dismantling of the questionably managed North Carolina Rural Center (a funding lifeline long depended on by less populous counties to develop industry and create jobs), several in attendance at the Small Business Innovation Center for Decker’s public availability told her they are worried that the flow of state funds to rural North Carolina might soon be drying up.
Queried about the availability of promised Rural Center grants, Decker reported that about 90 percent of the grants on the books have already been processed, and that the “remainder of funds” should be released “within the next week.”
And while the funds from the Rural Center will now be administered by the Department of Commerce, funds tabbed for the Golden LEAF Foundation have been diverted to the state’s general fund.
“Those funds were clearly earmarked for (counties that were dependent on cropping tobacco) … but they have been put back in the general fund,” state Sen. Gene McLaurin told Decker. “I want to make sure that stays on your radar.”
In response, Decker welcomed McLaurin and other legislators to “hold our feet to the (fire) on that one.”
Decker’s brisk tour of Laurinburg started at 10 a.m. with an informal talk with city officials followed by a visit to Richmond Community College’s F. Diane Honeycutt Center and the early college program at St. Andrews University. From there Decker stopped by the St. Andrews equestrian center before unloading onto Main Street and taking a walking tour of downtown with Laurinburg Downtown Revitalization Corporation Chairman Jim Willis.
Citing the LDRC, the early college and the Small Business Innovation Center, Decker said that she left Scotland County impressed with the ability of its educational institutions and its public and private sector members to come together for the greater good.
As a proponent of public-private partnerships at the state level, Decker said that she “loved to see that modeled in a number of different ways here in Laurinburg.”
“No one entity in (the LDRC, the early college or the SBIC) had the resources to do those things on their own,” Decker said. “This is a great example of what communities of this size must do.”
Prior to delivering a speech on rural priorities in the economic recovery, Decker was presented with a binder filled with information about “TARGET Scotland County/Laurinburg,” a business recruitment initiative born from recent joint discussions between local business, tourism and economic development officials and residents.
According to Decker, the biggest economic challenge facing rural North Carolina is the allure of the big city and its power to attract young workers.
“That challenge is one that people are facing all over. The world is urbanizing. Folks want to live in major cities where there are amenities,” Decker said.
Creating jobs in spite of that reality is a goal that Decker said can be achieved by emphasizing the rural quality of life and by enhancing grade school education so that it includes information about careers in advanced manufacturing and textiles.
County Economic Director Greg Icard said that Decker’s visit has the potential to be deeply valuable for the community in the long term.
The commerce secretary spent part of her day in a closed meeting with Icard and other economic development officials “seeking ways that we can partner with you to get those jobs here,” she said.
“(We want to help) get your industrial park more known … and we saw a lot of ways to work more closely together.”
Decker addressed nearly 50 locals at the SBIC on US-401, only yards from the site of FCC’s new paper plant, which will bring more than 90 jobs to Scotland County.
“FCC and other announcements like that shine a spotlight on two heritage industries in North Carolina: Manufacturing and agriculture,” she said.
By taking advantage of what she called “an opening window of opportunity,” Decker said that the state is set to cash in on its reputation as a historical textile center and benefit from the return of manufacturing jobs to the United States.
With the convergence of “a lot of energy and resources” to recruit big industry to North Carolina and the increase in both labor and fuel costs overseas, areas like Scotland County with large unemployed labor pools should be in a “sweet spot,” she said.
Laurinburg Exchange|Civitas Media
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