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Pitt commissioners hear from nearby public-private partnership

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Chairperson Beth Ward speaks during workshop for County Commissioners at the Pitt County Senior Center on Feb. 9, 2019. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)


By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Pitt County citizens deserve an economic development entity that builds on past successes and creates opportunities in every corner of the community, the chairwoman of the Board of Commissioners said at a Saturday workshop.

The commissioners met at the Pitt County Council on Aging to review the history of its current economic development office and receive a presentation on how the Carolina Gateways Partnership, a public-private partnership serving Nash and Edgecombe counties, operates.

Commissioner Beth Ward, the board’s chairwoman, said she believed an additional workshop session and possibly a public hearing to receive community input, were needed before the commissioners decided what, if any changes were made to the county’s process for recruiting industry and creating jobs.

“I want Pitt County to come up with a plan that would continue the good work, build on it and bring in the private section,” Ward said.

Saturday’s event stemmed from efforts to create a public-private partnership that would unite economic development efforts of the county, city of Greenville, other entities under a single umbrella with the support of the business community.

A report on the process, called the Convergent Feasibility Study, was presented to the city and county and a working committee was formed to draft a governance model along with creating budgeting and staffing recommendations.

Ward and Commissioner Tom Coulson served on the committee. In January, they asked to group to delay finalizing the plan. Coulson said the process was moving too quickly and newly elected county commissioners had to catch up.

The Greenville City Council, Greenville Utilities Commission and Pitt County Development Commission are scheduled to receive a presentation on the working committee’s recommendations on Monday.

Coulson restated his belief that they processed needed to slow down.

“There are many aspects of this so-called Convergent model that I think (are) good,” he said. Saturday’s meeting was a good start to explaining the county’s economic development work to the board’s three new commissioners.

Ward said the county is not ending its involvement in the Convergent study or the working committee.

“We have not voted on it, so that would not be something I could say. What this means is the county doesn’t have a plan. They assumed we did, but what we are going to do is come back together and have a plan that is best for all of Pitt County, not just one town or or city or one portion (of the county),” she said.

“If I thought the Convergent plan was the best thing for this county we would not be holding this workshop,” Ward said. “I’m not criticizing it, we’re just saying Pitt County has a wonderful development plan as proven by our success over the past few years. All we are doing it trying to get the county together on the same page with where we are with development and who we need to bring in to it.”

The General Assembly passed legislation in 1957 that allowed Pitt County residents to vote on a proposal to create an industrial development committee and allow commissioners up to a 3-cent tax for industrial recruitment efforts, County Attorney Janis Gallagher said. Subsequent legislative acts modified the size of the board, gave county commissioners more authority over member appointments and exempted the commission from having to follow state public meeting and open records laws regarding the sale and purchase of land.

However, the entity’s purchase has solely remained industrial requirement and expansion of existing industries.

Today, less than one cent of property tax — .07-cent per $100 valuation — funds economic development activities in the county. The current economic development commission office operates on a $750,000 annual budget.

Pitt County has gained $2.1 billion in investments from businesses and industries recruited to Pitt County in the last 30 years, said Wanda Yuhas, the development commission’s executive director, who is retiring in late April.

In that same 30-year period, 15,000 jobs were created, she said, although some of those jobs have been lost when businesses closed.

Norris Tolson, president and CEO of The Carolinas Gateway Partnership, explained how that public-private partnership works.

The organization serves Nash and Edgecombe counties and 18 municipalities. It has a 63-member board of directors, divided between public officials and private business people that meets quarterly; a 29-member executive committee divided between public and private members, who meet monthly; and a four-person leadership team.

Tolson said the board chairman always is selected from the private sector membership to prevent the appearance of one governmental entity receiving preference.

Tolson said the Pitt County commissioners were right to investigate different governance models.

“They need to decide which course of action they take. The public-private thing works for us in Nash and Edgecombe and I presume it would here, but there is a word of caution,” Tolson said. “If everybody wants to try and run it, nobody’s going to run (it). They have to decide what their governance structure is going to look like.”

A public-private partnership will work because it brings all the players to the table at one time. But if those players don’t agree, the client is the first person to see it, and will select another location for their business, Tolson said.

Coulson said he wants the governance model clearly laid out before making any final decisions about joining a public-private partnership.

“Ultimately, when it finally comes down to it, because the county is going to be the largest money contributor of any of the entities, I want final approval to come to the county,” Coulson said.

Commissioner Mary Perkins-Williams said whatever economic development model is selected, it must include retail recruitment.

“No one in a county should have to drive 15 minutes to get services,” she said.

New Commissioner Christopher Nunnally said whatever model is selected it must give smaller municipalities a voice.

“We have a unique opportunity right now to get everybody on the same page,” new Commissioner Mike Fitzpatrick said. Working together, he said, benefits everyone in Pitt County.

Commissioner Melvin McLawhorn, who participated in the meeting via teleconference, said he would like input from the public.

Commissioner Glen Webb, who also participated via teleconference, said the county has to move forward.

“We still have a quarter of our population living in poverty,” Webb said. “The old way that carried the water for us, it’s not moving us forward.”

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.