By Mark Marcoplos

Blind Groping the Economic Development Elephant

By Mark Marcoplos Posted September 4, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Since the phrase “economic development” has become the primary mantra of local political discourse, I’ve been trying to understand exactly what we think we mean. It is like the proverbial tale of the three blind men groping an elephant and perceiving three completely different animals.

I’ve been particularly intrigued since the behind-the-scenes secret formation of a new Economic Development Advisory Board. Little is known about how this happened, but the Commissioners — in conjunction with the local Chambers of Commerce — created the board quickly and without publicity. I say the Commissioners created it, but in the era of County Manager Clifton, a lot seems to happen in the Commissioners’ name without much oversight or explained direction.

In an attempt to learn about this curious board, I clicked on the County’s economic development calendar link and it took me to a calendar with no events listed for the rest of the year. The website in which this neglected calendar exists is actually a different website than the official County site. It’s www.growinorangenc.com, and it is also the only place I found any mention of the County’s Economic Development Districts (EDD’s).

My curiosity about the EDD’s was raised during my recent tenure on the county Planning Board that involved rezoning the Eno Economic Development District for commercial development. Understandably, the residents there are confused and disturbed over the changes to their community that are being brought down from on high. Folks have been living there and moving into the neighborhood without the full knowledge of what the County has quietly had in mind ever since about twenty years ago when it designated their community and two others to be future EDD’s.

There are no clues in these areas. The least the county could have done was to post signs declaring that you were entering a future EDD.

So I thought I would peruse the Economic Development Department’s section of the County website to see what a citizen might learn about these EDD’s. As big a deal as this key county strategy is, there is no mention, prominent or otherwise, on the department’s site.
Another thing I noticed while poking around is that the county’s economic development brochure is outdated and contains contact information for at least two people who no longer work for local governments, including the county’s previous economic development director.

This raises several questions. We know that the County is working hard to implement some vision of economic development, but it is difficult for a citizen to know what is going on. A secretly formed board with no posted meeting schedule, EDD zoning being aggressively imposed on a community that has not bought into it, a brochure that is out-of-date?

Given the much-observed impression that Mgr. Clifton is running the show from behind the curtain while an ineffectual Board of Commissioners looks on, it’s logical to ask what is on the real calendar? Does Clifton consider the public and the BOCC to be obstacles to implementing his unpublicized plans?

Back-room maneuverings will surely back-fire. Hopefully, the new slate of Commissioners will help the citizens understand what is going on. And it would be a great service if a local news reporter would investigate what is happening.

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