Don’t cut FSEDI funding

Published 9:28 am Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Economic development is an extremely tricky business. As revenues in most localities are still shrinking and unemployment rates in many places are still rising, the competition to land economic development deals is fierce to say the least.

Local governments are all competing among themselves, oftentimes with the political and financial backing of their state governments, each with the hope that they will be the one to lure a new key employer to their community. In the eternal battle to create new jobs, each county and city is in competition with the next, each state is in competition with its neighbor, and, in what has truly become a global competition, nations are jockeying for position with other nations to attain or retain economic supremacy.

And in this day and age of constant and withering competition over each and every economic development opportunity, those opportunities rarely come knocking on our door. Each community has learned that it has to be highly proactive in marketing itself to would-be suitors, and many smaller communities such as ours have learned the hard way that, when competing with neighbors who have more enticing amenities and a larger checkbook, the playing field is rarely level. Many times, when in the final stages of picking a new location in which to expand its operations, a company doesn’t just pick the community in which it will be the best fit; it picks the one that has the most cash on hand to sweeten the deal.

Such is the set of circumstances we find ourselves in today, right here at home in Western Tidewater. As we continue to adjust from having a century-old rug pulled out from under our feet, we suddenly find ourselves competing on a global stage for new jobs and new revenues that wouldn’t just be nice to have but are ones we must have.

So now, more so than ever before, it has become imperative that we commit, as a community, to a long-term economic development strategy that will help keep us a viable competitor for jobs and controlled economic growth into the future. And that strategy should continue to include Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc.

As we prepare to hold the local elections that will fill the slate of leadership positions in Southampton County for the next four years, economic development has probably been the single largest topic of conversation, outside of increasing tax rates, among concerned citizens and candidates alike. But while a healthy and open discussion on this topic is certainly appropriate, I oftentimes find myself concerned with the direction conversation on economic development will take. For rather than discussing the ways in which our local government can extend or increase its support for the efforts of FSEDI, I have been involved in many conversations where folks question whether we should continue funding FSEDI at all.

On that point, let me be clear: Discontinuing FSEDI would be the equivalent of a car dealership, frustrated by slow sales in a tough economy, doing away with its sales department with the hopes that the cars would somehow sell themselves. A smart businessperson would never consider so foolish a notion, yet that is exactly what some citizens and candidates for public offices consider a solution to certain economic woes.

This fall, as a new term begins for the Southampton County Board of Supervisors, those elected will find themselves under a tremendous amount of pressure to find any waste in the county budget and to immediately trim the fat. And I’m sure that if they look hard enough, they will find what they are looking for.

But funding an economic development agency that is constantly in the marketplace seeking new jobs and economic growth for our community is not waste; it is an increasingly important part of what we must do to improve our chances of long-term economic growth and stability.

So while I understand the frustrations of those who will be on the Board of Supervisors and have yet to see significant results from FSEDI in this incredibly challenging economy, I urge them to exercise patience and think long and hard before making any decision that would impact funding of FSEDI. While it may appear to be a somewhat popular political decision in the short term, cutting off funding to FSEDI could in fact be a deathblow to our economic future.

TONY CLARK is the general manager and advertising director at The Tidewater News. He can be reached at