FSEDI takes up mantle for city, county

Published 10:10 am Saturday, February 13, 2010

* First in a series

FRANKLIN—When the community learned on Oct. 22 that International Paper Co. would close the Franklin mill by the spring, they were shocked by the news.

The shock has since worn off. In its place are many other emotions — fear, uncertainty chief among them — as the region anxiously looks toward what life will be like in Franklin and Southampton County after the mill is closed.

People are also looking at Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc., an entity that was formed five years ago and given the task of bringing new employment opportunities to the citizens of the city and the county, advising existing businesses and offering assistance to new startups.

It’s a daunting challenge, but one that John Smolak, the president and CEO of FSEDI, says his group can meet — ensuring that Franklin and Southampton County continue to be great places to live and work well into the future.

Together, then separate

Franklin and Southampton first began working together on economic development issues in the mid-1980s. Both localities funded a join economic development office until about 2001.

“It was funded totally by the city and county governments,” said Teresa Beale, executive director of the Franklin-Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce. “But after awhile that folded and the city hired their own person and the county hired their own person. It just wasn’t being effective.”

Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson said that in 2002, the county “decided both of us should do (economic development) on our own. We had some projects that we felt we wanted full-time attention on. We had a vacancy in the executive director position, so we went out and hired our own economic development director.”

For the next three years, Franklin and Southampton went their separate ways.

Asked how that three-year period went for the county, Johnson said, “I think they went fine. We certainly were pleased with the progress that we were making in that area. We put together a lot of the marketing materials and our Web site during that time. I t hink they were fairly productive years.”

The county’s “Growing Business” slogan and its first moves into developing the Turner Tract industrial site also began during those years, Johnson said.

Alliance forms

The region was hit by a double-whammy in 1999. In May, International Paper Co. purchased the Franklin paper mill and moved most of its executives to the company’s headquarters in Memphis, Tenn. Many families in both the city and the county were uprooted. Four months later, devastating floods tore through downtown Franklin.

“That brought people together,” Smolak said of the events of `99. “They were saying we don’t want to lose ground, we want to keep going.”

Concerned about the long-term effects of these events, community leaders formed the Franklin-Southampton Alliance in 2003 and shortly thereafter began working with an advisor from Market Street Services of Atlanta, and MDC Inc., a Chapel Hill, N.C. firm that advises communities and organizations.

MDC helped the Alliance compile a report entitled “One Economy, One Future” in October 2004. One of the conclusions of the report was that the city and the county should combine their economic development efforts.

“To increase our competitive stature in economic development, we urge the community to integrate and consolidate efforts to attract, grow, and incubate businesses, expand tourism, and create a community climate where enterprise can flourish and higher-wage work is a reality for all,” the report said.

Said Beale: “That was one of the things that came out of all of the study and research, that we come together and do a joint economic development for the city and the county. We’re really one community.”

FSEDI is founded

Inspired by the findings in its report, within the next year the Alliance transformed itself into a non-profit organization called Franklin-Southampton Futures. During the same timeframe, both the city and the county agreed to pool its resources and create a combined economic development entity: FSEDI.

Smolak came to the community in October 2005 after the Alliance conducted an extensive search for someone to lead FSEDI. At the time, Smolak was working as director of economic development and business development for American Electric Power, which is based in Charleston, W.Va.

Both localities agreed to each contribute $150,000 a year to FSEDI. Two additional stakeholders, the Camp Foundations and Franklin-Southampton Charities, contribute the rest of FSEDI’s $700,000 annual budget.

“I think it’s important to understand that working together you get a lot more done than working things separately,” Smolak said. “I believe we’ve been able to truly accomplish a lot working together.”

He added, “We’re working for a common cause. It’s not about the competition of tax bases. It’s about job creation, community stability and helping small businesses grow. I think we’re on the right track. I think more and more communities will be trying to do this.”