Leading from the Left

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Economic Development: Missed Opportunities

Last night the Board of County Commissioners had a dinner meeting with the Economic Development Commission to discuss economic issues. The discussion was fruitful and began a good dialogue between the two bodies. Frankly, we should talk more often.

One discussion point, in particular, deserves to be mentioned I think. Mark Crowell, an EDC member who works for UNC, shared with us that since he's been at UNC about 40 businesses have spun off from research conducted by faculty and staff at the university. Of those spin off businesses, only 3 are currently located in Orange County.

Wow. Those numbers pretty much tell the story, don't they? We're losing a golden opportunity to grow exactly the kind of businesses we'd like to have in Orange County. Mark said that these businesses would like to stay close to UNC, near where the research is being conducted, but they can't find adequate space to site their ventures.

The commission and the BoCC went on to talk quite a bit about recruiting businesses from outside the county, perhaps through some sort of incentive program.

But I keep coming back to what Mark said. It seems to me that, when it comes to economic development, we should pick the low hanging fruit first. That is to say, these start up businesses spinning out from UNC want to stay in Orange County; they want to be part of our community. They don't need incentives to come, because they're already here.

It seems to me, what we need to do as a community is to ensure that these local start up ventures have what they need to survive and thrive. For some that might be finding the right kind of space or enough square footage, for others it might be a start up or expansion loan, and for still others it might just be as simple as having welcoming posture at the EDC.

The County is in the process of searching for a new Economic Development Director. Our highest criteria ought to be finding a candidate who has experience working in a university community and who can assist us in retaining these kinds of spin off businesses.

Second, I think we need to set some clear Economic Development priorities. We can't do everything at once, therefore our first priority should be focusing on the low-hanging fruit. If faculty and staff at UNC are creating new business ventures based on their research, we should be bending over backwards to keep them.

Other priorities, like discussing incentives to attract outside business ventures, should come later. First things first, my grandmother always used to say.