Southeastern Partnership, new economic development group, will emphasize private-public partnership


ELIZABETHTOWN - Transitioning to a public-private partnership is the best way to direct business and industry to southeastern North Carolina, say leaders of a newly formed economic development group.

The Southeastern Partnership will assume all operations of the Southeastern North Carolina Regional Economic Development Commission, known as North Carolina's Southeast, as that agency is dissolved on July 1, said Steve Yost, director of the Elizabethtown-based state agency.

It has operated as an extension of government with private support, said Jeff Etheridge, who recently retired as BB&T's Southeast Regional president. He was elected chairman of the new Southeastern Partnership on July 1.

"What we're moving to is more common nationally," Etheridge said. "It's more of a privately funded organization."

Yost will continue his duties in a streamlined agency that was created by state law to deal with restructuring at the North Carolina Department of Commerce. Boards of both entities have embraced the transition plan, Yost said. No members of the outgoing board are on the new board.

There are currently seven regional economic development partnerships in the state, Yost said, and all of them are faced with charting a new course given current political and economic realities. All will be phased out June 30.

North Carolina's Southeast was created by the General Assembly in 1994. It initially served Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Cumberland, Hoke, New Hanover, Pender, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson and Scotland counties. Anson and Montgomery counties joined the Southeast Region earlier this year.

In a news release, North Carolina's Southeast said it has helped bring 113 companies to the region in nearly two decades, creating 9,062 new jobs and attracting $970,175,000 in economic investment.

The Southeastern Partnership leaders are hoping for an annual budget of about $850,000, "but it probably won't be quite at that level," Yost said.

A company will need to spend about $20,000 to buy in, Yost said. BB&T is already involved.

"We have 20 or so who have bought in," Etheridge said. "Law firms, banks, private companies, hospitals. It's the same folks who have been involved in the past."

Regional focus

County governments will be offered a buy-in, Yost said, and early indications are that those leaders will want to continue economic development efforts that focus on the region, not the state, while working with the North Carolina Department of Commerce when it is appropriate.

"It's important to have an organization that represents us geographically," Ethe-ridge said.

County governments will serve as a conduit for input from cities and towns, though there are no current plans to offer buy-ins to municipalities, Yost said.

"It's the right move," said Gary Lanier, Columbus County's economic development director. "Every year the partnership received the bulk of its budget from the legislature, that funding had to be reviewed, and we were constantly having to go to Raleigh and politic for funding.

"It's going to leave us with a more effective regional emphasis and less of an emphasis on state funding."

Member counties should notice little change in the services that have been provided by North Carolina's Southeast, said Beth Dawson, a board member and New Hanover County Commissioner, in a news release.

"In terms of programs and strategies, counties should notice very little change," Dawson said. "North Carolina's Southeast was created 20 years ago for the purpose of adding value for the counties.

"The organization remains committed to doing that even as other factors impact resources and governance."

Yost said the Southeastern Partnership plans to expand on its record of economic development and luring new industry to the region.

"We're building upon what has been a very successful program for 19 years," Yost said. "We want to enhance it and make it better. This year is the transition year."