In 2010 the county aimed its economic development strategy at sustainable local business. Now a key backer of the move has left.

Will Cabarrus sustain local food focus?

Two years ago, Cabarrus County boldly remade its economic development strategy, doing less to woo big businesses from elsewhere and more to nurture small businesses and local food producers from within.

The shift ignited a sometimes contentious debate between business people and county officials.

Cabarrus officials said the shift was part of a push for what they called a more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable community. But some business people feared the county was turning its back on more conventional economic development strategies.

A local publication, Business Today, summarized those objections in an editorial ridiculing the county: “We love local tomatoes, but this isn’t helping land the jobs that help drive all the economic wheels.”

These days, the county manager who oversaw much of that shift has stepped down, and the acrimony seems to have subsided somewhat. County officials say they are committed to supporting both conventional and alternative strategies, and many on both sides say each approach has merit and can complement the other.

Determining how much money to devote to each, however, remains an open question. With alternative economic development strategies gaining in popularity, it’s a question that could soon arise elsewhere in the region, too.

The debate

Cabarrus, home to 178,000 people, is a county that transitions from suburban subdivisions, commercial centers and busy highways to rolling cow pastures as it stretches northeast from Charlotte.

A driving force behind the debate there is Cabarrus Jobs Now, a group of business people who favor conventional strategies such as corporate recruitment and tax incentives and support like-minded candidates for county commissioner.

The group formed after the county in 2010 decreased its support for those strategies, slashing its annual allocation to the Cabarrus Economic Development Corp., which recruits new business, by almost 40 percent to $262,000. The county had considered an even deeper cut, but commissioners later restored $50,000.

Meanwhile, the county increased support for a host of alternative strategies. Among other steps, the county:

  • Hired a local food system program coordinator.
  • Established a Food Policy Council.
  • Hired a sustainable local economy project manager.
  • Established a Council for a Sustainable Local Economy.
  • Commissioned consultant Michael Shuman to study the local economy and recommend ways to bolster local entrepreneurship.
  • Paid to build a slaughterhouse to allow local farmers to harvest livestock close to home.
  • Started an incubator farm to cultivate a new generation of farmers.

Many of those moves were championed by former county manager John Day, who stepped down in September but remains on the county payroll as a consultant.

Doug Stafford, a hotel developer and manager and a board member of Cabarrus Jobs Now, wants the EDC’s funding fully restored, saying the EDC has proven its worth by helping attract several major employers. Luring new capital and customers is essential to improving a community’s economy, he said.

There is a place for programs aimed at small, local businesses, he said, but such programs are experimental and should receive less public money than they have.

Supporters of those programs disagree, saying their strategies cost relatively little and have proven elsewhere to produce substantial – though perhaps less immediate – economic benefits.

They say money spent at small businesses is more likely to stay in the local economy than money spent at large businesses, which typically are based elsewhere. They say thriving small businesses and a vibrant local food scene can fortify a community, enhance its sense of place and foster a quality of life that can attract larger firms.

The money

County data show Cabarrus has spent at least $2.3 million on alternative strategies.

Supporters say the bulk of that money – $1,686,386 for the slaughterhouse and $438,822 for the incubator farm, for example – was one-time spending, some of it covered by grants. They say ongoing costs for alternative strategies should be small because many of the projects, such as the farm and a campaign educating consumers about supporting local businesses, are expected to generate enough revenue to cover all or most costs.

Proponents of both strategies speak highly of new county manager Mike Downs and say they believe he supports their efforts.

For the upcoming budget year, Downs’ proposed spending plan includes an additional $50,000 for the EDC. If county commissioners approve that extra money, the EDC would spend it on initiatives such as an apprenticeship program for youth entrepreneurs and revising a previous plan for small business and entrepreneurship development.

Striking a balance?

When asked if the county’s allocation of resources between conventional and alternative approaches is appropriate, EDC President and CEO John Cox said, “I think the best thing for me to say is ‘I’m grateful for the support the county provides to the EDC.’ ” The EDC has been “very publicly supportive” of the county’s alternative initiatives, Cox said, and seeks to “scratch the itch (commissioners) have” with its proposed programs for the upcoming year.

Liz Poole, who chairs the county commissioners’ board, said she doesn’t think of economic development only in terms of conventional vs. alternative strategies. She supports a multifaceted approach using the conventional strategies of the EDC, alternative strategies such as the Council for a Sustainable Local Economy and tourism and downtown development groups, she said.

“We should be supportive of every effort,” said Poole, who narrowly outpolled two challengers supported by Cabarrus Jobs Now in a recent six-person Republican primary.

If the county’s finances improve as the economy recovers, Poole said she would support restoring funding to programs whose county allocations have been cut – including the EDC – before funding new programs.

Harrison Campbell, who teaches about economic development as an associate professor of geography at UNC Charlotte, said a balance between conventional and alternative strategies usually is needed for maximum success. A community's goal should be for local companies to buy as many supplies as possible from each other, and both strategies can contribute to that, he said.

“No one strategy will cut it all the time,” he wrote in an email. “In most cases, both are needed.”

Lori Clay, a Cabarrus businesswoman who chairs the CSLE and is a board member of the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the county appears to be striking such a balance.

Tension is fading as supporters of both strategies are realizing “it’s no longer an ‘us against them’ ” situation, she said.

“You have to have your traditional economic development, and you have to have your local economy, too,” Clay said. “ ... To me, it’s very much a circle.”