ELIZABETHTOWN — Some of Southeastern North Carolina’s brightest and most innovative minds from the areas of education, business, politics and economic development gathered at Cape Fear Vineyard & Winery in Elizabethtown on Tuesday for a luncheon to celebrate the 50 years of service by the Southeastern Economic Development Commission.
More than 100 people from the SEDC’s 12-county service area heard about some of the advances and success stories from those 50 years, as well as words from U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina).
“We’ve had another successful year at the SEDC,” said Randall Johnson, chairman of the organization. “(And) this organization has impacted this region dramatically over the past 50 years.”
Some of the highlights featured Tuesday included the fact that the SEDC has a list of 168 projects funded by the U.S. Economic Development Agency in its first 50 years — including 25 in Bladen County that total $12,877,222 in funding, which is second in number only to Robeson County’s 27 projects totaling $15,497,943. Columbus County is a distant third with 22 projects with a total funding of $9,070,793.
Hillary Sherman, a representative of the U.S. EDA, told the group the EDA is happy to be part of a partnership with the SEDC, as well as be able to share in the celebration of 50 years.
“The way the world is moving toward projects and solutions is changing,” she added. “We are committed to working with groups like the SEDC in support of local projects that help with private sector job creation.”
Dale McInnis, president of Richmond Community College, shared “a real success story” from his campus that came about because of a partnership between the college, local businesses, Golden LEAF Foundation and the EDA. The project centered around RCC’s 40-year-old Forte Building that was recreated to improve the school’s workforce training facility.
“Since then, our enrollment has doubled and we’ve awarded more than 500 certificates from that facility alone,” McInnis said.
U.S. Sen. Tillis, a former North Carolina representative and speaker of the House before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014, took the podium and immediately gave kudos to the state’s community colleges.
“I’m a product of community college, so I have a lot of respect for those institutions,” said Tillis, who moved to North Carolina in 1998.
Tillis said he wanted to give those in attendance an economic update, saying he was “excited about what’s going on, but there’s a lot left to do.” He said the recent tax reform program and regulatory reform has and will continued to pay dividends throughout the country.
We’re seeing companies starting to increase salaries for their employees and investing money back into their businesses and communities,” he said. “And both of those reforms are important parts moving forward to dwindling that $21 billion national debt.”
Tillis added that, before regulatory reform, “all the red tape with federal grants was taking smaller counties out of the running very quickly,” something he said can now change. Tillis also said he expects to start seeing smaller, community type banks coming back.
“But now it’s time we settle into trade discussions,” he said. “North Carolina was hit hard by NAFTA, and I remember this state’s congressmen literally shedding tears when they voted to approve NAFTA.
“But I agree with the president when he says that when the U.S. competes on a level playing field, we seldom lose,” Tillis added.
The Huntersville resident continued by telling the group what North Carolina means to him and the advantage the state has in Washington.
“I love North Carolina is both an urban and rural state,” Tillis said. “When you have that kind of balance, you win more often in Washington. Not all, but a lot.
“We have a lot of great assets here,” he added.
One area Tillis pointed to as a potential new asset is the possibility of locating the Army Futures Command Center in the Raleigh area.
“We’ll surely make the short list because of the closeness to Fort Bragg, Camp Lejune and the Triad,” he said, “and we will compete aggressively to locate that here.”
Tillis then opened the floor to questions, and answered concerns about Internet connectivity for rural counties; the Farm Bill and work visas for farm workers; the cost of building new public schools versus charter schools; off-shore drilling versus tourism; and state infrastructure.
The SEDC heard an update on Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Investment, then went into its annual business meeting, during which officers were elected for the 2018-19 fiscal year. Serving as chairman against will be Johnson of New Hanover County; elected vice chairman will be Amy Cannon of Cumberland County; and serving again as secretary/treasurer will be Chuck Heustess of Bladen County.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached at 910-862-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.