Economic Development has been the most uttered buzz-phrase of the last several years in Orange County politics. Hardly a meeting goes by without someone intoning knowingly that “All agree that we need more Economic Development.” Right on cue, everyone nods sagely in agreement.
Imagine your cupboard is bare, and you are making plans to restock. The household is sitting around the table and someone offers the profound insight that more food is needed. Then everybody nods in solemn agreement with such wisdom. In response, they pledge to get more food and designate a person to get it.
Later, some household members begin to wonder what they will see on their table. Will they be served Spam on Wonderbread? Marshmallow-cream sandwiches? Pink-slime ground beef from Walmart? Or will it be local broccoli from the Farmer’s Market? Locally-raised beef from their neighbor’s farm? It also dawns on them that actually raising some of their own food would help their overall food strategy.
Then they realize that there is likely to be a different notion of food for every person who so confidently supported the shopping trip, and they have no idea what is being cooked up for them.
In Orange County, we have seen success in many areas of our economy. Carrboro has been fostering small businesses within the “local living economy” model. Local agriculture, in its many forms, has become a mainstay of our economy and holds promise for much more success. There have been fascinating explorations into how we could use our solid waste as a resource to both save disposal costs and create jobs and energy. We may have more green builders per capita than anywhere else in North Carolina. Rural communities have been holding discussions about how to shape regulations to allow more types of home-based businesses.
These are just a few examples of the diverse patchwork of economic vibrancy that we could be nurturing and growing. Yet, last week, the County revealed its plans to revive its Economic Development Board and little or no mention was made of these opportunities. With no public discussion, the County staff collaborated with the Chambers of Commerce to fill the board with hand-picked members, some from outside of Orange County.
County Manager Frank Clifton is focused on facilitating development along the I-85 corridor, and this could be a success, depending upon what the meaning of the phrase “Economic Development” is to all parties. Maybe it’s his short history with the County, or maybe it’s a willful desire to circumvent what he and the big economic players feel could be a messy process: dealing with the citizens whose focus is on the diverse opportunities of our local economy.
Either way, we will not have real success in Orange County unless it is democratic participation that shapes what we collectively mean by “Economic Development.”