ROCKINGHAM — Scotland County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, and because of that, its Chamber of Commerce and elected officials are trying an unorthodox approach to attracting new businesses and boosting the local economy.
More than 60 Scotland County businesses are offering what they call “one-of-a-kind” incentive packages for any employer that commits to creating at least 50 new jobs. For example, the convenience store Nic’s Pic Kwik donated $1,000 in gas and merchandise plus a free car wash each week for a year, and other businesses have offered items ranging from free haircuts to a one-year membership to the local country club.
With our neighbor trying a rather different approach to coax businesses to come there, it begs the question — what is Richmond County doing?
“Everybody has to be creative. There’s 100 counties in the state, and everybody is fighting to get these companies,” said Martie Butler of Richmond County Economic Development. “The county commissioners have been very forward-thinking and extremely aggressive in economic development, wanting to create jobs and opportunity for our citizens.”
Butler said commissioners have given herself and County Manager Rick Sago the tools to make decisions and work with companies in a confidential manner at the fast-paced speed of business. Butler considers it an advantage over some counties that don’t have such a policy in place and have to take each project before their board of commissioners, which can take months to review and approve incentive packages.
“We are always looking to improve — so we have taken a look at some of our unique strengths, one of which being rail. We are working to develop and identify additional rail sites throughout the county,” she said. “Another strength we have in the community is our farmers. We also have a strong agriculture community, and we are working with our regional farmers starting a food hub within the county.”
Over the past two years, Butler has made trips visiting site selectors — firms that assist companies that are looking to expand and relocate — and have had some visit Richmond County as well, sharing with them the county’s sites, programs and what they have to offer.
“The county will return up to 85 percent of property taxes due over a five-year period,” she said. “The percentage reimbursed is based on capital investment and other guidelines such as total financial investment, number of jobs created, payroll, potential for future expansion and increased employment, county and local investment required and “spinoff” effects of existing and new businesses.”
This program is available to manufacturing and warehouse and distribution companies only.
It’s broken down into tiers beginning with Level 1 with an investment threshold of $1 million and a 50-percent return rate. Level 2 is for an investment of $5 million with a return on property taxes of 60 percent. Level 3 requires an investment of $20 million with a 70 percent return, and the final tier is Level 4 with an investment of $50 million and an 85 percent return on property taxes.
Richmond County also may offer — depending on taxable investment and job creation — infrastructure grants, free or reduced-price land to qualifying projects, fast-track no-cost local permitting in which all local permits are issued within one week and site preparation grants.
“We streamline everything, so we may not have haircuts, but we streamline our permits. Most are issued within a week,” said Butler. “We’ll waive a lot of cap fees. Anything to make the business go smoother, and it’s worked.”
From the government side of it, the county’s economic development team has incentives in place to try to lure potential businesses to Richmond County. From a business side, the Chamber of Commerce sees putting educated employees in place as the best incentive.
“From the chamber side we are not offering anything,” said Chamber President Emily Tucker. “If our members are willing to offer something like that, we’d be happy to put it together. If we can offer a skilled workforce, then I think that would be the biggest incentive. We have to focus on education and building a workforce. That has to be the key, but if we can offer anything for businesses to relocate, I think it’s a great idea.
“Anybody that’s a partner in economic development, I think they’re all working hard to bring new businesses into Richmond County, but it never hurts to try something new.”
While Richmond County has an incentive plan that’s already brought some companies into the area, the city of Hamlet is following in county leaders’ footsteps.
“From public safety to transportation to recreation, so much of what we do can be considered a form of economic development,” said Hamlet City Manager Marcus Abernethy. “Our goal as a city is to provide services to the best of our ability to residents and industries so that Hamlet is a greater place to live, work and play. In addition to what we do for our residents, the city of Hamlet has two economic development programs being used for economic development purposes.”
The city of Hamlet Economic Development Incentives Program was launched in March, he said. The city modeled the program off of Richmond County’s program, which Abernethy added has been very successful.
“The program awards a grant based on the amount of investment that a new or expanding industry makes,” said the city manager. “The grant is performance-based. In other words, the industry must create jobs and invest the money in their project prior to receiving a grant.”
The city’s other incentive program is the façade grant, which awards a grant to downtown businesses who are investing in their buildings. The façade grant is a program funded through an appropriation in the city’s annual general fund budget by the Hamlet City Council.
The program’s objective, Abernethy said, is to improve the façades of downtown buildings so that residents will notice a marked improvement in their streetside appearance.
“When you compare apples to apples, Richmond County has done extremely well in economic development,” said Butler. “The numbers speak for themselves.”
Reach reporter Matt Harrelson at 910-817-2674 and follow him on Twitter @mattyharrelson.