Big bucks; high stakes

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It’s entirely appropriate — and, for the record, relevant and newsworthy — that this community’s highest-paid public servant is the man whose mission is to create jobs for its citizens.

We emphasize “public” lest Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc. be tempted to confuse its technically private, non-profit status with its very high-profile and public role in the community. The $300,000 in taxpayer money that supports its activities should alone disavow FSEDI officials of the notion that its finances and activities are anything less than an open book for the citizens the agency was created to serve.

If the mission of FSEDI wasn’t seen as critical two or three years ago, October’s announcement by International Paper Co. that it would close the community’s anchor employer and industrial icon by spring has put the economic-development organization squarely in the spotlight and, fair or not, on the hot seat.

The nearly $140,000 that FSEDI President and CEO John Smolak earns annually will be worth every dime if he is successful in recruiting good-paying jobs to town — to not only replace but exceed the jobs being eliminated by IP. It’s not an easy job by any stretch in a national economy that has just begun pulling out of a deep recession and in a country whose manufacturing base is evaporating. Such a job demands top talent and, by extension, a compensation package to lure that talent.

Smolak brought impressive credentials from West Virginia five years ago and obviously has earned the confidence of his bosses on the FSEDI board, who raised his pay from the $125,000 starting salary he was given in 2005. It’s also true and understandable that the organization’s fifth year — and the corresponding expiration of an initial funding agreement by Franklin, Southampton County and private foundations — has citizens and elected officials alike eager to begin seeing a return on that investment. Regardless of the profession — from Fortune 500 CEOs to professional football coaches — with high compensation comes high expectations.

The conditions are ripe for success. The union wages of the paper mill — long blamed for the community’s inability to attract major employers — will be a non-factor next month when the mill’s machines are idled for good. Western Tidewater has a skilled — and immediately available ­­­­— workforce to offer. The national economy is showing signs of life.

It’s time as a community to put behind us the economic-development failures of the past half-century and go create some jobs. When that happens, Smolak’s salary will be seen as a bargain rather than an outrage.