County considers economic development future

By Nicholas Elmes -

Almost a year after the Stokes County Director of Economic Development resigned, county commissioners are debating how the county should staff and fund the department in coming years.

After the resignation of Alan Wood a year ago, the board decided to have County Planning Director David Sudderth act as interim director for a year while asking a committee to evaluate the future of the department and provide quarterly recommendations to the board.

On Monday, Sudderth told the board the committee was recommending he continue in his position until June 30, 2017, but that county should also provide some help for him to be more effective.

The committee recommendations included a request for a one year reclassification for Stokes County Arts Council Director Eddy McGee to add economic development duties, including grant writing, to his existing duties; to fill an economic development technical analyst position, and to allow the Economic Development Assessment and Planning Committee to continue to assess what the county needed to do to succeed with economic development.

Sudderth said the recommendations closely mirrored the staffing situation he had unofficially created after coming on board as an interim director for the department, noting that the county manager had loaned him staff in shared roles over the year to help him move some projects forward.

“I needed some assistance so I went to the people I could get assistance from,” he explained. “Our art director has expertise in marketing and he is also a producer of economic development in this county. I don’t think we have given the Arts Council enough credit.”

He said he had also enlisted the help of the county IT department to develop a new app for the county and to help maintain the county’s tourism website.

“That position also provides a presence when I am not available,” said Sudderth. “I can’t be in the office all the time. I have jobs where I have to go out and do things in the county. This way if you come up here you can talk to someone.”

But some commissioners felt the board should only consider extending Sudderth’s position as interim director.

“I think we have a person who is doing a good job,” said Commissioner James Booth, asking if the county could appoint Sudderth to the interim position for three more years. “I am looking at it more long range because there are things we are going to need revenue for.”

Commissioner Earnest Lankord said the only part of the recommendation that should be considered before budget discussions was extending Sudderth’s appointment.

Commissioners Ronda Jones and Jimmy Walker, both of whom served on the Economic Development Assessment and Planning Committee, said the recommendation as a whole needed to be considered in order for the county to be successful in building its economic base.

“There has been a lot of energy and time and personal resources invested in this plan,” said Jones. “We have met every two weeks for months and to say that only one thing applies today is a little hard to swallow. We are thinking comprehensively. We feel, collectively, that we need to reassess this once a year to see if we made our benchmarks. Do we want to move forward with economic development or do we want to just be stagnant? I don’t think we are doing economic development any justice, I don’t think we are doing the community any justice. We were charged to do a job and we have done our job. There should be some trust and confidence that what we are recommending is valid and we should move forward with it.”

Walker said the recommendation was already a compromise with what other members of the board had said they wanted.

“It uses existing resources instead of changing the game again,” he said. “We hope to use the effectiveness of David, Eddy, and others involved and at the same time have a cost savings for our county. I think this proposal does that. We all see what is here before us today as something that can continue to move the county forward in a very cost effective way.”

Sudderth agreed, noting that he would do whatever the board asked of him, but that he needed help.

“I do have six other jobs that go along with this,” he said. “There are some things I am not able to do because I need to be doing other parts of my job. We have spread it thin, but I think there is more that could be done in more areas that we could get involved in based on this recommendation. There are some cost savings, but there are also some costs in doing economic development.”

He said neither the committee nor his department would be requesting any major additional funding in their budget this year outside of the personnel changes.

“There are some additional costs, but there is also potential for the position that is required to deal with all of the software issues we have,” he said, noting that by pulling web and app development in-house the county could save considerable money over what had been spent in contracting those functions out in previous years. “Last year we also saved about $100,000 by combining this interim position (instead of having a full-time economic development director). But I am not just tasked with saving money for the department. I think with this recommendation we will save money in the long run but we can accomplish more. It would still be significantly less than what it would cost to hire a new economic director.”

Lankford continued to insist the only thing the board needed to consider at this time was extending Sudderth’s appointment.

“I don’t even know why we are talking about the rest of it,” he said.

Walker noted that the board should probably continue the discussion in closed session as it dealt with several current employees.

“If this recommendation changes, you may have some critical personnel issues you are not aware of,” he said.

Board Chair Leon Inman thanked the committee for their work on the recommendations and scheduled the issue to be considered on the action portion of the next commissioners meeting on Feb. 22.

Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.

By Nicholas Elmes

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