Not a one-man job

Published 12:40 am Saturday, September 27, 2008

Some professions require a thicker skin than others.

Hospital administrators and economic-development directors tend to be easy targets, because there’s usually just one of each in a small town. As a community newspaper publisher, I can relate.

When a mentor put me in charge of a newspaper for the first time at the not-so-ripe age of 27, I had a lot of know-how and loads of ambition. Those qualities carried me for about six months. I figured out quickly that I could either develop some emotional maturity and toughness or find another occupation.

For certain jobs, the thin-skinned need not apply.

I was reminded of that truism Monday night during a work session of the Franklin City Council. John Smolak, president of Franklin-Southampton Economic Development, and his team were on hand to give council members their quarterly update on economic development.

The fact that the City Council wants a quarterly update says a lot about the high expectations surrounding economic development. It’s a pursuit that is inherently long-range in nature and accomplishment, but we want short-term results.

And the pressure to produce jobs, fairly or not, is on Smolak.

Having observed Smolak “on the hot seat” three times recently, including a one-on-one with this publisher in which I quizzed him pretty good about the Business Incubator and other topics, I believe that he both understands the challenge and relishes it.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, he gave an upbeat report on his organization’s work during 2008:

n Through Sept. 1, Smolak and staff had worked 41 prospect leads and hosted nine prospects for site visits.

n Six new tenants have joined the small-business incubator.

n Southampton Terminal opened a warehouse and distribution facility at Courtland in the spring.

n In tandem with the Chamber of Commerce, FSED has visited nine existing industries, including this newspaper, for feedback on the local business climate.

n An impressive new marketing brochure touts the benefits of doing business in Franklin and Southampton County.

After his prepared remarks, council members politely but persistently peppered Smolak and his team with questions. Given the city’s significant financial investment in economic development, council members had every right to do so. What unfolded was a candid, interesting discussion about the past, present and future of job recruitment in this community.

Smolak held his own. He acknowledged the community’s failure to land a big fish in recent years, conceded some frustration with that fact (even though the dry spell long predates Smolak’s arrival) and spoke the truth when asked what city government could do to help the recruitment cause.

“The thing Franklin needs to be more aggressive on is its business tax rates,” Smolak said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t overcome it, but it should be looked at.”

(Memo to council, just in case the results of May’s election have become fuzzy: Property taxes are too high. Next month’s final adoption of a tax rate for fiscal 2009 is the opportunity to fix it.)

Otherwise, Smolak believes, the pieces are in place for success.

“I’m kind of baffled at times why there’s not more interest,” he told the council in a moment of candor. “We’re in a great place.”

Indeed, location and infrastructure are strengths, making the community’s lack of success — even during the bustling economy of the 1990s — hard to figure.

Councilman Benny Burgess, noting the slow development of Pretlow Industrial Park over the past two decades, said an honest review of past and current recruiting methods might be in order.

“I wonder sometimes if we’re doing the same thing over and over and scratching our heads, wondering why we’re not successful,” Burgess said.

Monday’s dialog was a good first stab at finding some answers. Perhaps a joint meeting of the City Council, Southampton County supervisors and FSED’s board would be a good place to continue it.

The pressure may be primarily on Smolak, but responsibility for our community’s economic health is much broader.