Orange County EDC in Limbo

The Orange County Economic Development Commission still exists, I know this because I am a member of it! Yet the County is functioning as if the board has been disbanded even though it has taken no such action. This is the culmination of a dysfunctional history in Orange County Economic Development. But the part that really bothers me now is a closed session being held tonight by the county commissioners on the topic of economic development without input from citizens, citizens who were appointed by our elected officials to advise them on the diverse set of opinions held by residents of Orange County.

To me this sunsetting of the Orange County Economic Development Commission is a tactic to silence dissent. It's true there are many people on the Orange County Economic Development Commission who did not agree with the former director on policy or plans. It's true that many of our meetings were frustrating. But to subvert democracy when you no longer find it agreeable is wrong. I hope as we consider a new organization to represent us in economic development matters that we remember how the county has acted.



The neglect of the Economic Development Commission along with the hiring of a traditionally-minded ED director, has me deeply concerned about the direction of economic development in Orange County.The County claims to be prioritizing ED, and yet seems to be at best disorganized in this key area. At worst the staff are actively subverting the agenda of elected officials and their appointees. And where are the Commissioners in all of this? Are they negligently unaware, or are they not bothered by the slow withering of this crucial committee? This is yet another area (thinking of my recent Rogers Road post) where the Commissions need to step up and take some leadership and stop letting bad decisions just happen to them. I'm also reminded of Carrboro elected officials saying earlier this year that they don't see the County as a partner when it comes to economic development. More and more the County is a force to be opposed by those of us that want to see our local economy truly thrive, which is surprising and disappointing to me given that most of the commissioners have histories of progressive activism before they were elected.

Obviously, I got no dog in this fight as a reporter. But two fun facts from my Citizen notebook on economic development that never made it into a story (at least not yet). These may already be well known to you, but I found them interesting as points of reference:

  •  The single largest contributor of sales tax revenue to the county is not in Chapel Hill or Carrboro: it's the Walmart in Hillsborough, which provides 7 percent of the county's (admittedly pretty meager) sales tax revenues.
  • Roughly 30 percent of the county's sales tax revenues come not from consumer spending, but from food.

Make with those what you will. Of course, economic development is more than just increasing commercial activity. But I thought those numbers paint an odd picture.

As someone who served on and Chaired the EDC at one point.  I agree with Brian. The Commissioners should make an affirmative decision to either disband the EDC or support its efforts to provide citizen input.     Yes,  there were many strong opinions in that group, and sometimes a lot of dissent, but that in my opinion showed commitment by the participants.  A lot of people worked really hard in that committee, and a note saying, thanks but no thanks would be far more respectful to the group than the silence it's received so far.     

Can someone provided a list of businesses that the County's ED and/or the EDC have bought to Orange County in the pass 10 years?

well the EDC wouldn't be bringing business to the county, because it's an advisory board.  it weighs in to the BOCC about what it thinks could and should be done to recruit, create, preserve, and expand businesses in Orange County.  It might identify resources,  barriers to business, opportuntiies for business,  Orange County assets and liabilities for businesses,   intrinsic marketing strengths,  weaknesses,  what businesses are desirable, what aren't, where to locate economic centers--the charge is broad and different groups have focused on different things.  

is pretty striking. Obviously this is a big focus for Cty Mgr. Clifton. All signs point to "economic development" being the number one priority. It is striking how often that phrase appears in public dialogue and how nearly everyone nods knowingly when the phrase is uttered. Hardly an issue is discussed that does not provoke someone (or many) to say that we need to do such & such because "we need to finally have some economic develpoment in this county". Everyone nods knowingly, even though "economic development" is undefined & means different things to different visions. This is usually followed by someone saying, "Everyone knows you just can't do business in Orange County". Everyone nods more knowingly. Obviously this is a simplistic statement, yet it is uttered as if it holds profound meaning.  As I look around the County and see the many businesses, as well as the growing local agricultural sector, I wonder if anyone asked them why they are here. Obviously, the current county strategy is to move forward with standard economic development, pretty much like it's pursued in Anytown, USA. The powers-that-be don't want messy discussions from the public on low wage jobs at WalMart, poor treatment of employees, reliance on Chinese products, sweatshops, agribusiness food, etc. They want more sales tax revenue as their legacy and consider it simplest to just move ahead without significant public discussion. We are in a time of great transition - economically, socially, environmentally. We should not be practicing "economic development" like it's 1999. We need a substantial community discussion on how we want to shape our future. Unfortunately, The Commissioners have placed their trust with the County Mgr. and not the citizens. 

More evidence that the county's vague but worrying approach to economic development policy is now driven by Frank Clifton: 

Not so long ago I wrote a post called, A Vision for Sustainable Businesses in Orange County. It includes some ideas to fix real problems. I wish we could all work together to flesh this out and get something rolling.

What is the highest need in our economic development plans?   The kind of Economic Development that promotes job creation is somewhat different than Economic Development that promotes a property tax/sales tax  base, or Economic Development that promotes the provision of goods and services for residents and visitors.    There are areas of intersection in these interests, but they don't completely overlap.   So I think it s priority #1 to answer the question of priorities.  that will drive other decisions.   I know it's easy to say we want all three, but we have to target where we are starting.  We have limited resources and sometimes these major areas are in conflict with one another. Job Growth--focuses on recruitment of major employers, large and small.  This may or may not generate tax revenue for the county or provide goods/ services that serve a local end user.  Tax Base:  focuses on goods/services that generate sales tax,  businesses that improve undeveloped property, and other entites that generate taxes.  May or may not create a lot of jobs.  Goods/Services:  increases availability of items/services consumed/used by residents and visitors.   May or may not creat jobs or lots of tax revenue.   The  most successful economic development initiatives are ones where the goas are limited, and very clear and the focus is like a laser.   Part of what makes it challenging in OC is that we pretty much assign equal weight to every variable.   (that's an observation,  not a judgment).    When everything is equal, and many things are in conflict,  the status quo wins by default.   

Anita,I understand your point about being focussed, but if we want a sustainable economy, shouldn't the plan target all three with priorities associated  for each in any given year? For example, if we want the type of job growth that pays a living wage, we need need office/research facilities (infrastructure). But we also need income and sources of goods for local citizens--so that's retail (tax base and goods/services). In past years, it has seemed that all economic development was directed toward retail growth (e.g., mixed use development). That may bring us a bigger tax base, but building an economy on sales tax is hardly sustainable.  

There were attempts to get priorities discussed at the EDC. The BOCC did provide some high-level guidance but it couldn't be translated into concrete priorities, or even branching efforts serving the larger cause.Some of us continue to work on the eco-industry park concept that can address both the jobs and the goods/services objectives. And it can address them in a way that makes the local economy less reliant--at least, incrementally--on the global economy and, therefore, more resilient.  This, too, is a desirable objective, I think, because the global financial system remains unstable, energy prices continue to be unstable and these concerns and climate change are making the global food supply unstable. I think Sen. Kinnaird's leadership in efforts to land a Costco for CH-C is terrific and I hope something does happen along those lines.  But it seems unlikely that there will be any large scale retail development.  I haven't seen recent data, but not long ago, the data showed that the western Triangle was overbuilt for retail and we have Patterson Place/New Hope Commons on one side and Tanger on the other.  The opportunity to save the Orange County taxpayers with sales tax revenue seems dim even if there was a consensus that a large mall was a good idea.  But light industrial property development and the resulting tax revenue, that seems doable.  Does any of this kind of thinking make its way into the economic development activity in the County?  I don't know.  The EDC hasn't met since February and the then new Economic Development Director didn't attend...hint.  We have enlightened County Commissioners;  I hope they develop a plan for sustainable and resilient economic development.

It would be very beneficial if we could promote economic activity that utilizes our waste stream and maybe waste from neighboring jurisdictions. For example, Blair Pollock, Orange County's recycling head, told me that old asphalt shingles are being processed into asphalt for roads, sidewalks, etc. and suggested that we should consider a processing plant. An eco-industrial park in one of our EDD's is worth exploring.

Another potential business is mattress recycling. There is only one company in NC and they are located in the mountains. Mattresses and box springs take up enormous space in our landfill.

I had no idea that there was such a thing as mattress recycling. That is a good idea.


The economic development decision in question was the enactment of a 5-year, $100,000 development deal with AKG North America, which operates a facility in Mebane.In other economic development news from Tuesday's commissioners' meeting, the board approved the permanent hiring of Gary Shope as economic development director. Read more in Thursday's Citizen!  

Did you do the tweeting on the commissioners' meeting for the main Carrboro Citizen twitter account? I thought it was very well done; concise yet informative. Thanks.


While I am not opposed to incentives in general I think a citizen board should vote on them before Orange County Commissioners approve them. Not doing so is subverting our democratic process. I hope voters will remember this. More at the link bellow on the money going to AKG.


I don't care if the OC Commissioners ignore me personally. This isn't about ego. My beef is with the County ignoring our democratic process embodied in citizen boards.

Guess this is what the closed meeting by the OCC was about...

that's what I want to know. Would the jobs that the county gets from this possible expansion be jobs that would help employees to live in the community?Also, I can't tell from the reporting - would these tax incentives only kick in if AKG choses to expand in Mebane and not South Dakota?

The Daily Tar Heel had some additional information not in the WCHL report. average wage of the new jobs created would be $44,175. Hopefully the spread includes mostly jobs close to that amount and not a few high wage corporate jobs offsetting an abundance of low wage jobs.

Additional information on the "Economic Development Incentive for AKG Expansion" is provided on the Orange County website. 

For regular BOCC meetings there is an abstract with details supporting an agenda item.  This is typically where reporters get their facts and numbers. 

Agendas are gernerally posted several days before a meeting.  See the following link for agendas. 

 Anyone can sign-up to get notified when an agenda is posted for a meeting of the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

See the following webpage, check "Sunshine List". 


Hope this helps

David Hunt

Orange County Deputy Clerk / Information Specialist


Another big issue we should all drum into the commissioners email boxes is that the incentive has to be conditioned upon hiring local workers in management positions. Hiring the low wage workers locally but importing the higher wage earners is not acceptable. 

Why is it not acceptable, if they are going to live here?

Because bringing in people from outside of this area for the high paying jobs isn't economic development, it's importing. I watched this happen in Florida. The high salary people were brought in from other areas, they made demands on the county for new services, they didn't fit into the existing culture, and the counties continued to lose those citizens who were well educated and underpaid (and committed to the success of the county). If county money is going to be used, then the county residents who pay for the incentive money through their taxes should be the ones who benefit. If there isn't the talent, it's one thing. But that will not be the case in Orange County.

Terri:Technically, almost every professor at UNC is imported. As a matter of fact, I am imported back when RTP was actually adding jobs. So if you're saying that "locals only" because they are different. That just sounds wrong and not really all that open-minded. As a matter of fact, I don't think many people on OrangePolitics were actually born in NC or even the South (as I happen to be from the South, but not NC). So this is a neat, but strangely xenophobic argument and I actually find the attitude disturbing.It's really sad that now that the economy is not very good that a place that I once viewed as open-minded and as recently as a few weeks ago chastised people for not welcoming those seeking Shelter here would suddenly start sounding so disturbingly hostile to outsiders.   

If these "imports" move to Orange County it is their money.  They will pay taxes in OC.  I doubt that they will require "new" services that other County residents don't also require.  If your point is that if they live in OC that will fuel residential expansion and residential expansion doesn't pay for itself, I am on your side on that one.  We need to figure out how to fairly tax new housing to pay for the infrastructure needs that it engenders.  At least these people who choose to live in OC will be living and working in the County and (I hope) that their employer will be making some contribution to the tax base.

The unemployment rate in OC is 5.9%, down from an all-time high of 7% a year ago. There's a pretty good chance that it's down now because, like the national data shows, some of those unemployed people have stopped looking and others have moved away. The whole concept of economic development is the improve the quality of life for OC residents, isn't it? So why is it arguable that those who live here should directly benefit from incentive funds? Is the purpose of economic development just to generate new tax revenues or is it also to ensure local sources of employment for residents? We talk about building a local economy. Doesn't that mean creating the opportunity for our citizens to live and work locally? I also understand that having lived in an area where incentives were handled badly and ended up making things worse for the local residents that I have a different perspective than others.  

This line of thinking is divisive and unhealthy for our community, because this argument cannot be made without deciding who are the "real Orange County residents," and who are not.When the new neighbors move onto our street each year, we go over and welcome them ASAP.  We don't wait for them to "ripen" for a time period as residents so that we may consider them worthy enough to be considered people with a stake in the health of our neighborhood.

According to the news report, this deal is going to cost the county $20,000 a year in incentives (for 3 years) while it generates $25,000 a year. So initially the net gain in the deal is those 90 new jobs. If the company were to import people for the higher paying jobs (median of $44,000 means there are some higher than the local median of $51,000), then new residents would benefit from the deal while current residents remain unemployed. Now THAT would be divisive. Bringing new business into the county needs to benefit those who currently live here. If it doesn't, it's not economic development. 

It seems to me the point is that you are trying to create two classes of citizenship in Orange County, those that would be eligible for these jobs and those who wouldn't.

If they import people for a job, those people aren't yet citizens of Orange Co, are they?

"Our purpose is to make
Orange County a smart, innovative place – a great place in which to
live and work.  We encourage public-private investments to provide jobs for county residents and to
increase the non-residential tax base.  Through these investments, we
enhance the financial well-being and quality of life of county
residents, and the ability of their local governments to provide
high-quality services." 

I don't see the word "current"  or the phrase "as of June 2011" anywhere in the statement.  I want to take the word "citizen" back from my previous post and replace it with "residents". 

I share your hope about the jobs.

The notion of getting into the incentive game was floated by Cty Mgr. Clifton soon after being hired. There has not been substantial information presented or public discussion about it. Just like the passive abandonment of the Economic Development Commission, it appears to be very much on purpose. Is this deal a historic first? I don't recall any other incentive deals being sealed.It may or may not work as planned. We don't know the details of the deal, nor do we know the details of what the company plans to do. I guess it will be years before we know how much it actually costs County taxpayers per job and/or per amount of tax revenue. We don't know how it will be measured either.Will this be touted as successful based solely on expectations and thus other incentive deals extended with even less input from citizens? Is the upcoming sales tax referendum (which the Commissioners are back-dooring around rural voters) part of the incentive equation? I asked the Commissioners at a recent meeting if the sales tax referendum money was going to be used for bringing water & sewer for economic development and they froze up. None of them had a clear answer ready for that question. They deferred to Clifton who spoke in circles for a few sentences, never stating clearly what that money might be used for, and concluded by saying it might help with interest on the utility loan or something that almost made sense. Has anyone heard a clear & specific explanation of what this potential sales tax money will be used for?There seems to be way more questions than answers surrounding county policy these days.  

In related news, WCHL is reporting that Gary Shope is being offered the Economic Development Director position permanently.

That was quick.  Two weeks by my count.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Release Date: June 23, 2011Contact:  Frank Clifton, Orange County Manager, 919-245-2300

Shope Leaving Economic Development Position with Orange County HILLSBOROUGH
– Orange County Manager Frank Clifton announced that Gary Shope,
Interim Economic Development Director for Orange County, will leave his
position in mid-July.“Gary
Shope is a true professional.  He has been a great asset to Orange
County.  His leadership will be missed, but he deserves this new
opportunity in the private sector and no one could expect him to pass it
up,” Clifton said.  As
the Interim Economic Development Director, starting February 1, of this
year, Shope was responsible for creating and implementing strategies to
enhance and promote the economic well-being of Orange County.  Shope
had recently agreed to accept a full time position with Orange County
and was in the transition process.  Steve
Yuhasz, Vice-Chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, stated
Shope has been a wonderful leader for the Orange County Economic
Development team.  “We will miss Gary’s efforts, but his work has
provided a solid foundation for our future Economic Development plans
and we will build on the momentum he created.  We wish him great success
in his new position,” Yuhasz said.   Shope generated significant accomplishments for the short time he was with Orange County.  Last
week, AKG of America selected their Mebane site in Orange County over a
site in South Dakota for expansion of their manufacturing facilities. 
Gary Shope played a major role in coordinating efforts to make this
happen.  In addition, Shope has been meeting with many existing Orange
County businesses, setting ground work for future opportunities.  “Gary
certainly is to be commended for his role in bringing life to the
County’s economic development efforts.  He has been a bright star and
his leadership will be missed,” Clifton said.  “Gary has done a great
job of establishing Orange County’s emerging role as an economic
development ready community,” Clifton added.    Orange County will continue with a strong commitment to economic development.  Tuesday
night the Board of County Commissioners rezoned several hundred acres
along the interstate corridor in the western part of the county to
prepare for commercial and office development.  The County continues to
move forward with extension of water and sewer lines in the Buckhorn
Road area. 


Shope was appointed interim status in February or March I believe; still its less than 1/2 year

The BOCC took away the interim tag.  This all seems sloppy. How does the BOCC give this guy the job without knowing that he is looking eleswhere for work? There was a breakdown somewhere.

Yeah, just a few weeks ago, they made him non-interim. I haven't have any direct interaction with Mr. Shope, but nothing about his tenure made me think I will miss him.This is a great opportunity for Orange County to see a truly visionary leader who understands what E.D. means to us.  

the process will have to be more open. I'm not sure what we can expect with the track record of this version of the BOCC.

Although I understand the frustration with the county's neglect of the EDC, it remains unclear to me why the group has stopped meeting. The commission does not seem to have been disbanded, and it is scheduled to meet on the second Thursday of each month. Why aren't the five current members meeting?

I can only speak for myself. But Damon you should ask the Chairperson this question.

For starters if the Chair doesn't call the meeting we can't meet. How do we meet without an agenda?

The Orange County Economic Development Commission met for months where no Orange County staff person attended. Thus no official minutes. Technically they didn't happen. Also I hadn't seen our Commissioner liaisons attend for months either. So if our mission is to advise the Commissioners and they actively ignore us why bother? For many months we met to discuss and to debate. But after awhile peoples important work and family lives got in the way. Gosh how could that happen? I find it aggravating that people would even ask why we'd keep beating our head against a wall. It was bloody a long time ago yet we kept on. I think common sense finally kicked in.

For example, why isn't the EDC meeting tonight?

It is safe to state that members of this forum represent a variety of opinions/beliefs about the role of the EDC, whose interests an EDC represents, what authority and responsibility an EDC should hold,  what past/present members should/should not do, etc. This post is not intended to persuade or dissuade anyone to/from such opinions/beliefs, only to clarify a few minimum rules of engagement that the EDC is required to follow until the BOCC determines otherwise, and why the EDC has ceased to meet.

First, an EDC is not required by any state or county legislation. In OC, it exists purely at the pleasure of the BOCC for the purpose(s) it sets forth by vote. In order to submit a work plan for BOCC approval or to implement an approved work plan, the EDC has to have the ability to make decisions, which requires the ability to take valid votes. Valid votes can occur only if individuals have voting privileges, and if a quorum of voting-eligible members is present. Without quorum, no votes. No votes, no decisions. No decisions, no action taken or advice rendered. 

As the most recent Chair of EDC, I have not covened a meeting since February because the EDC has no work plan approved by the BOCC, and there are insufficient number of members vested with voting privileges. While I (if not all) joined the EDC with the intention of contributing to data-driven decision-making, I concur with the County (BOCC and County Manager) that continuing to hold meetings without the authority to vote or act is disrespectful of members' time and commitment as well as a grave disservice to citizens who expect an EDC to do more than talk to the BOCC who deserve actionable advice.  

According to the EDC by-laws, there are only 3 members of all possible slots who meet the definition of a voting member as set forth in the by-laws. An individual must have been appointed by the BOCC in order to be eligible for quorum. While it has been common practice for members with expired terms to continue functioning as a member with an unexpired term, the by-laws state that membership consists of up to two consecutive three-year terms and that each term must be officially appointed by the BOCC.   These same by-laws state that appointed members can serve a maximum of two three-year terms consecutively.

The three members whose terms have not expired consist of an elected official representing a single municipality and two citizen volunteers.  Even though the remaining municipal representatives were officially appointed by their respective jurisdictions, they were never formally appointed by the BOCC; thus, they have no voting privileges on the EDC.  The remaining seats have been held by citizen volunteers who either resigned or whose first or second terms expired---some of these resignations/expirys occurred as long as 20 months or more ago and have remained unfilled.  These seats remained vacant or in limbo because the BOCC stopped considering EDC appointments almost two years ago. And, even though the EDC produced a significant volume of work product, most has been either relegated to the netherworlds of the OC web site or was never posted.

So, even as members with expired terms have been allowed by the BOCC to meet with active members in the name of the EDC, the group has authority for only two options: meet for non-actionable discussion/debate or not meet at all. Any votes to be taken cannot be recorded, can have no standing, and cannot be presented to the BOCC or to any public or private body, or to the world at large as representing the EDC. Meanwhile, every member meeting under the name of EDC will continue to be considered a quasi/semi-public figure governed by the applicable public records and meeting regs/OC code of conduct etc. 

On the face of it, this last bit isn't onerous, it is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. It can get messy for members whose interpretation of public/private differs from that of the County apparatus. And, it can be both messy and a deterrent for members of the business community who want clear, consistent rules of engagement when entering any sort of discussion with someone who purports to represent a county board, much less a county economic development board.Many thanks,Kathleen Ferguson. 

Thank you for that detailed and accurate explanation. It's important for people to know this.

My apologies! I meant to sign my post shedding light on basic EDC bylaws and why no meeting but apparently did not do so correctly.  If it is technically possible, please feel free to append my post with my name.

Many thanks,

Kathleen Ferguson.

Thanks for commenting, Kathleen. We can't convert an anonymous comment to an authenticated one (plus I can't prove who authored those comments). But for the future please sign up at and then just make sure you're logged in before you comment (or post new content).



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