An article in The Fayetteville Observer three weeks ago left the impression for many that “Cumberland County has been designated one of the most economically distressed counties in the state.” The North Carolina Department of Commerce ranked Cumberland County one of the state’s 40 most economically depressed areas, designating it a Tier 1 community.
Robert Van Geons, president and CEO of the Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation, said it really isn’t all that bad. “Our community is coming together to create jobs and improve the quality of life for our citizens,” he said. “While we haven’t lost any ground, we have a lot that needs to be done.”
Since 2007, North Carolina has used a three level system for designating development tiers. The designations are mandated by state law. They are incorporated into state development programs to encourage economic activity in all 100 counties of the state. The legislature changed some of the criteria last year, resulting in Cumberland County’s distressed category.
The revised designations are based primarily on a community’s average unemployment rate, median household income, population growth and the adjusted property tax base per capita.
Counties that underperform in any of the four factors may request assistance from the North Carolina Department of Commerce about how to improve their performance.
“According to my review of the data, these statistics … actually improved,” Van Geons said.
Since the 2017 rankings, median income is up $2,700, unemployment is down 1.5 percent, and the per capita tax base has risen $1,900.
“I feel like the economy, if anything, is getting better around here,” County Commission Vice Chairman Marshall Faircloth added.
“If you take a look at all the retail, hotel, downtown and new industrial activity going on, it represents hundreds of millions of dollars, Van Geons said. “In just the last few years, our organization has worked with companies bringing over 1,800 jobs to Cumberland County.”
The new Tier 1 designation will make Cumberland County eligible for additional state grants and make it easier for companies to receive incentives for bringing jobs to the county.
“We want to move forward and push our way out of Tier 1,” Van Geons said. “Meanwhile, we appreciate the tools and resources we have now.”
Fayetteville is the only major metropolitan area in North Carolina that is ranked Tier 1. The most economically disadvantaged counties lie east of the I-95 corridor. They also include Robeson, Hoke, Sampson, Bladen, Duplin and Scotland counties in southeastern North Carolina.
A report released by the North Carolina General Assembly Program Evaluation Division in December 2015 makes three core findings regarding the way North Carolina has used the tier system. The first is that using tiers to distribute state funding has not helped the state’s most distressed counties as intended.
Though created specifically for economic development tax credits, several noneconomic development programs now use the tier designations to distribute state money. “Despite the adoption of the tiers by other state programs, it is apparent that Tier 1 counties are not benefiting the most,” said Jonathan Morgan, a UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government faculty member who has studied the program.