Is Government Expansion the Answer?

The City of Fayetteville’s planning retreat, held this past week, ended on a high note, but has me wondering if our new city council and staff members are aware of the myriad of organizations, businesses and institutions that are already serving this community to encourage local economic development. 02-12-14-pub-notes.gif

This question arises after the introduction and discussion surrounding a proposal recommendation by Deputy City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney to create a new city department. According to Small-Toney this new Department of Economic and Business Development would focus specifically on local citywide economic development.

Hmmmm? In my opinion, this seems like an intrusion of local government into those things best left to the expertise of the private sector. No doubt progressive, healthy economic development that leads to the creation of good high-paying jobs goes hand-in-hand with keeping any metropolitan city’s crime rate low and its unemployment rate under control. Having low crime and unemployment rates lead to a better quality of life. Fayetteville is no exception. However, you would think that after at least four decades of implementing “on-again off-again” economic development plans, programs and strategies in this community (all with limited success) it’s amazing that with this idea, what is old is now new, again.

When it comes to coordinating economic development efforts, recruiting industry and retaining and expanding local businesses in Fayetteville and Cumberland County you would think we would have learned to leave that to the professionals. We should know by now that government employees and full-time bureaucrats have a miserable track record navigating the private sector. So, why go there? Again.

But according to Small-Toney there is a desperate need. She states, “We have a gap and now we have an opportunity to close that gap.”

Really? A gap? Where is this gap and what is it? Can it be defined and quantified? It begs the question whether our new city staffers are even aware of all the current services and programs offered here through organizations like FTCC, Fayetteville State University, Methodist University, Fayetteville Regional Chamber of Commerce and CEED (the Center for Economic Empowerment and Development). Many of these organizations are supported by the City of Fayetteville. I think Small-Toney would be impressed if she sat down with people like Chamber President Doug Peters, Russell Rogerson, vice-president of the Economic Development Alliance or Lexi Hasapis or Sylvia Ray of CEED to find out just what services they provide the citizens of Fayetteville. I think she would come away with a new found understanding of what they are collectively doing to address the issues and concerns she has.

As a matter of fact, I think she would be pleasantly surprised to find that their missions are identical to the ones she would like to see addressed with her proposal, i.e. the need to focus on minorities, women-owned enterprises, startups and small businesses. Interesting that there was no inclusion or mention of assisting our military veterans. A concerning omission.

Councilman Jim Arp and other council members should be concerned about creating “duplication of services.” Fayetteville residents and city taxpayers are already contributing heavily to this process. And, the council will already be challenged to find the funding for Police Chief Harold Medlock’s $5 million plus plan to increase his ranks to fight Fayetteville crime making the community safer place for all of us to live, work and play. The people have spoken. Crime is the #1 priority now and we must support Chief Medlock with our time, talent and money. Yes, it will take money. Tax dollars. So, there is no place for duplication here. We just can’t afford it.

There are other issues with this idea. Besides funding, there’s another more subtle concern with Small-Toney’s suggestion of creating a new in-house city department for economic development. This is that we would again be widening the cooperation and communications gap between city officials, Cumberland County Commissioners, the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development officials. Why would we want to do that? Successful, economic development comes from having everyone at the table when strategizing a development plan. Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson and many other council members actually campaigned on the issue and notion that they wanted to achieve greater levels of cooperation, harmony, teamwork and foster better working partnerships between the city, Cumberland County and supporting agencies. So, this idea of Fayetteville “going it alone” just doesn’t seem like it is in sync with the collective ideals of the council.

This is in no way an attack or criticism of Deputy Small-Toney and it’s not to say I don’t appreciate her initiative. From all accounts, the comments I have heard about her performance have been very complimentary noting that she is extremely smart and competent and is making worthwhile contributions to our city as part of Ted Voorhees’ management team. This being said, one wonders from who or where is she getting her information? Obviously, not from someone who is informed and in tune with the important and pressing issues of this community. The last thing our city needs at this sensitive and critical stage is the introduction of a “community organizer” mentality micro-managing the future of our city.

Now, addressing her idea about the need to market the city’s available business parks and redevelopment areas, well, isn’t this what our local, regional and statewide commercial realtors and economic developers do? Again, why try to compete with the private sector?

Fayetteville does not need to add to the expansion of government bureaucracy by creating a new city department, adding a department director, three new staff members, an administrative assistant, a business recruiter and development recruiter.

Nor do we needlessly need to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars to promote and duplicate the business and industry development process when it is already a coordinated effort between the city, county and region. It will not work and we can’t afford to create or take ownership of a failed economic stimulus package of our own creation. This economic-development strategic plan is not well thought out. There are no guidelines or pro forma for the money, yet, the purpose would be to provide business loans to entrepreneurs and business owners and provide down payments for private funding by providing working capital. Then, this newly created department would advertise, market and promote these services to those residents in need and the local business community. What does this sound like? Community organizing! It is not enough to just make a general statement that the city isn’t doing enough to attract economic development. Nor is it fair or prudent to ignore the conditions of our economy, our tax rates, unemployment rates, incentive programs or lack of, the lasting effects of the recession, ever changing technology and the changing demands and qualifications of the American work force.

So, tell me, what is not working? Can it be defined specifically? I don’t think so. Small-Toney said her idea isn’t to duplicate services but work in partnership to provide people with information and services to start and develop small businesses here in Fayetteville. Well, look around. Not only do we have these services and organizations (CEED, Chamber etc.) but they are currently being supported by taxpayer dollars. So, if the real concern is that taxpayer-funded economic development responsibilities are relegated to outside organizations and they are not being accountable to the city, make them accountable! The city is the client. They are working for the City of Fayetteville. However, it is the city’s responsibility to step up and understand the complexities of the process. This would be a very exciting and worthwhile job for the Deputy City Manager. I’m sure after a full year of this kind of involvement we all will hear a more realistic story about the state of our local economic development affairs and, hopefully, how to deal with them. We’ll see.

Thank you for reading Up & Coming Weekly.

Photo: Deputy City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney

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