Regional Economic Development Marketing Enhances Outlook for Participating Counties, Businesses
Elizabethtown, N.C. – July 15, 2014. The transition undertaken by business and local government leaders in Southeastern North Carolina toward a public-private regional economic development model is now complete. Effective July 1st of this year, the Southeastern Partnership has assumed all regional marketing and economic development activities formerly conducted by North Carolina’s Southeast Commission. The region, which stretches across 13 counties, will continue marketing itself under the brand “North Carolina’s Southeast.”
The Partnership, a 501(c)(6) corporation, pulls together leadership and funding from businesses and county governments. “It’s more reflective of the model most of the nation’s leading regional economic development organizations operate under,” says Jeff Etheridge, a retired executive with BB&T who serves as the Partnership’s chairman. Two years ago, he and other Southeast leaders began exploring options for a new business model for the region’s economic development program. The Commission had operated with an appropriation from the North Carolina General Assembly, which it established in 1994. With state funding for economic development in general declining sharply as a result of recession-related fiscal pressures, Southeast leaders began drafting an organizational blueprint for a broader and more sustainable funding base. “We had the foresight to see that a more investor-driven business model was necessary,” Etheridge says.
That foresight proved pivotal. In mid-2013, the General Assembly voted to eliminate financial support to the state’s seven economic regions and sunset the state-created commissions. The news from Raleigh served to energize county and private support for regional economic development in the Southeast. “Regional economic development is the way to go,” says Bob Warwick a Wilmington-based manager at McGladrey LLP who has been a volunteer leader in economic development circles for five decades. “It’s a much more competitive field than it was 50 years ago,” Warwick says. “Just about every county in the country operates a credible economic development program.” By coming together as a region, counties – especially rural ones – have a better shot at gaining attention from the site-selection consultants who routinely handle corporate location searches. “It’s a very competitive atmosphere out there for new industry and business,” Warwick says.
McGladrey will likely soon be among the Partnership’s investors, according to Warwick. Others include banks, utilities, agribusiness firms and transportation companies. Support is also coming from the region’s healthcare providers. “We made the decision to join the Partnership because we believe the regional approach is going to be more effective,” says Joann Anderson, president and CEO of Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton. She believes a broad base of support from across the region will ensure the success of the Partnership’s efforts. As the region gains jobs and grows wealth, businesses will benefit – and that includes healthcare providers. “As we improve the region’s economy, our medical center will feel that impact,” she says.
County and private investors will take part in the Partnership’s governance. Its board began meeting last year as the work of the state-created Commission winded down. The new board quickly set up a committee structure to guide marketing, financial management, strategic planning and other functional areas. “I’ve attended several meetings so far, and there’s great energy, synergy and momentum,” says Anderson, a member of the Partnership board.
As funding and governance of the regional program has changed, so too has the shape of the region itself. Three new counties – Anson, Duplin and Montgomery – have joined the Southeast. “Most of the counties in southeastern North Carolina need a group like N.C. Southeast to help them bring in industry,” says Bob Warwick. The new counties were encouraged not only by the Southeast’s track record of results, but also the progress the organization made in bringing private investors to the table during the last two years. “They’ve proven they can be successful,” Warwick says.
Ashley Sherrill Cagle, director of the Montgomery County Economic Development Commission, says officials in her county like the way the Southeastern Partnership interacts with its member counties. Until last year, Montgomery County was a member of the Piedmont Triad Region. “We’ve been officially with the Southeast since last November,” Cagle says. “In that time, we’ve been more than impressed with the way the Southeast operates and the way they engage their counties.” That is especially the case with rural counties like Montgomery, she adds.
Montgomery County’s target industries – which include bio-fuels, consumer foods and logistics – mesh neatly with the Southeast’s cluster-based marketing strategy. Cagle will participate with other county economic development leaders on the Partnership’s Local Developers Advisory Group (LDAG), which will meet regularly to discuss marketing targets and tactics and share information. “I’ve already been connecting with my new counterparts,” says Cagle. Partnership officials also have proposed a structured collaborative relationship with the state’s new lead marketing entity, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC), that will further benefit the region.
The Southeastern Partnership will continue to reach out to prospective business and governmental partners and allies. But with their re-emergence out of a 1990s-era state-centered operating model now complete, regional leaders are now focused on honing the Southeast’s marketing programs, creating metrics for assessing results, and harnessing the expertise and leadership its new stakeholders bring. “We have assembled a very strong group of private and county investors who are committed to economic growth and job creation in southeastern North Carolina,” Jeff Etheridge says. A focused, viable regional economic development organization enables the Southeast Region to credibly compete at a global level. “Given the complexities of today’s business world, most of our communities don’t have the luxury of going it alone.”
The Southeastern Partnership’s mission is to “provide strong economic development leadership in southeastern North Carolina through innovative marketing and collaborative regional initiatives that will support the creation of new jobs, generate capital investment, and secure new business locations.”