Former Alliance members: FSEDI is doing well

Published 11:59 am Saturday, April 3, 2010

■ Seventh in a series

FRANKLIN—Former members of the Franklin-Southampton Alliance say the entity they helped create, Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc., is doing a good job despite a difficult economy.

The Alliance was a community organization formed in 2003 to discuss ways the City of Franklin and Southampton County could cooperate on issues of economic development, education, and heritage and culture.

Perhaps the Alliance’s biggest accomplishment was conducting research on economic development and then persuading the city and the county to merge their efforts by jointly backing FSEDI.

“Back during the Alliance, (our) study showed that a joint regional economic development effort was the right idea,” banker Brian Hedgepeth said Friday. “I still think it is. The last few years have been a pretty difficult time in trying to be successful in economic development, but I think we need (FSEDI’s) efforts to keep Franklin and Southampton in front of people.”

Hedgepeth added, “Some people may feel that (FSEDI) has not paid off yet. I feel confident that it will in the long run. I feel like the effort needs to continue.”

Alvin Harris, another Alliance participant, concurred.

“I think the greatest problem FSEDI ran into was an unexpected change in the economy,” Harris said Friday. “Much of our discussions in the Alliance were based on a stable economy. Many of us understood and hoped that we could use our knowledge base to expand educational and job opportunities. With the unexpected drastic changes in the economy, the success that we hoped for is going to be found outside of the box.”

Harris said the closure of the International Paper Co. paper mill, as well as other industries, was not anticipated by the Alliance.

“When we initially started out, we were thinking routinely. We would send somebody out there to find some jobs and some expanded industries and convince them to come to our wonderful community. But that is not the picture that we find ourselves in now.”

Harris said the solution is to find people in the community with new ideas that may lead to job opportunities.

“In a sense, we have to rediscover the Camp Brothers all over again,” Harris said. “Some people may find that cynical, but it can happen again. At this very moment, out there somewhere, there are people with ideas that can be grown into an industry similar to what happened with the paper industry. It’s just a matter of local people getting our heads together.”

Lynne Rabil, president of Sedley-based Hubbard Peanut Co. and another former Alliance member, said FSEDI’s joining the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance was a pivotal moment.

“We had not been able to join that organization individually,” Rabil said Friday. “Southampton County had not been able to join, nor had the City of Franklin. When FSEDI was formed that was one of the highlights, that we were able to become partners with Hampton Roads in economic development. From that standpoint I think (FSEDI) has done well.”

Rabil acknowledged that FSEDI has faced challenges, but none of its own making.

“It’s very difficult to encourage businesses to locate to this area,” Rabil said. “Logistically we are just far enough away from the (Port of Virginia) that it’s not conducive to these companies to locate here.”

Rabil added, “You have to chase a lot of rabbits down a lot of holes. There’s a whole lot of time, effort and energy that goes into every contact. There’s a whole lot of groundwork, research and knowledge gathering. Sometimes you are successful, but more often you are not. We haven’t had a big hit, but I don’t think that’s for a lack of trying.”

Felicia Blow, another former Alliance member, currently serves as secretary for the FSEDI Board of Directors.

“Economic development, particularly from a regional perspective, is critically important at any time,” Blow said Friday. “And now it is of tantamount importance for our region. We have had an unprecedented economic downturn. As a result, I think our economic development efforts need to be even more enhanced.”

Asked for an overall assessment of how FSEDI has performed so far, Blow said: “Based on the current economic climate, things are going as expected. However, we can enhance that greatly with continued regional cooperation, with a continued eye toward growing the economic job workforce in the region, with growing our existing businesses and helping them to thrive and prosper.”

Blow added, “We must do this together, and it must be a unified front.”

The other members of the FSEDI board are Chairman E. Warren Beale, Vice Chairman William “Bill” Peak, Treasurer Harriet Bain Duck and C. Harrell Turner. Duck declined to comment Friday.

The City of Franklin and Southampton County have each contributed $150,000 a year to the organization as part of an initial five-year agreement, which expires this year. Two additional stakeholders, the Camp Foundations and Franklin-Southampton Charities, contribute the rest of FSEDI’s $700,000 annual budget.

“It was a great idea when we started it,” Harris said. “It’s still a great idea. I’m still optimistic that some good things are going to happen to Franklin.”