Decker highlights need for statewide economic growth at Durham forum

May. 23, 2013 @ 06:43 PM

N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker said Thursday at a Triangle-region-focused economic development forum that some significant changes proposed to the funding of the state’s economic development arm are about spurring development statewide.

“The large urban centers are growing very well – we’ve not seen that kind of growth in other places,” Decker said in an interview at the Research Triangle Regional Partnership’s annual state of the economy forum. The event was expected to draw more than 900 people to the Sheraton Imperial Hotel & Convention Center in Durham.

The Research Triangle Regional Partnership works to drive economic development in a 13-county region including Chatham, Orange, Durham and Wake counties. Charles Hayes, the partnership’s president and CEO, touted employment gains made across the region last year at the meeting. Annual average employment in the region grew by 36,447 compared to the prior year.

 “It looks like with a lot of hard work, and a little luck, we’ll make it,” he said of a regional goal set by the group to add a net of 100,000 jobs in the area by 2014. He also characterized the region as one with a business climate with healthy competition, and an unemployment rate, at 7.5 percent in March, lower than the state’s.

In the governor’s proposed budget, the partnership and economic development groups for other regions in the state are proposed to see their state funding cut by $389,394 in each year of the upcoming biennium. Josh Ellis, a spokesman for commerce, said that would leave a state appropriation of $1.7 million. He said the department is still evaluating the impact of the Senate budget proposal.

In addition, Decker said a plan is expected next week to outline changes to reorganize commerce department to turn it into a public-private partnership.

She said there are talks about privatizing part of the department, including to its business recruitment and marketing functions. She spoke about a need for changes to spur economic growth across the state in areas outside of its urban centers.

“So we’re going to distribute the resources across the state in a little more effective way, and hopefully be able to turn that needle, (in) every community like it’s turning in the Triangle,” she said. “Economic development is a community business,” she added. “We need to have resources at the community level. Exactly how that’s all going to play out in state dollars I don’t know at this point. We’ll put a plan on the table next week that I think can be move in the right direction.”

Hayes said in an interview after the meeting that about 25 percent of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership’s budget comes from the state. He said officials at the organization have developed a plan to raise additional money and to cut services in light of proposals to cut the budget.

Hayes said some leaders in the group believe a shift toward private dollars might skew economic development activity away from more rural parts of the region.

If more funding is coming from private businesses in what he called the “core” of the region versus the outlying counties, “it might be hard to convince the core that we ought to pay attention to the counties that are further away,” he said.

But he was optimistic about raising private dollars in general for economic development.

“We’re not led by government, we work with government, we are partners,” he said. “We believe in the triple helix approach, which is government, academic and businesses working together… but we are led by business.”