Forget the Elephants
Chatham County’s economic development has been characterized by chasing smokestacks around.
And it’s a shame that we don’t tend to catch that many. When I try to remember the big industrial catches over the past 15 years, I find most of them got away. There was the steel recycling plant that was designed to munch up cars in Moncure. Didn’t happen.
There was the landfill—largest on the Eastern Seaboard—also for Moncure—but folks didn’t want that one. There was the mental hospital for Siler City. That went to Butner. Drat.
We did manage to land 3M. It is the last one 3M will operate in America, and it came here. Whew. I am fortunate enough to live across the road from the 3M lands, and am pleased to report that all it cost us was our night sky and our silence. Now when we weed our gardens we do so against a constant background rumble. The sales of white noise machines must have plummeted at the Jordan Dam Mini Mart after 3M came to town.
It’s too bad we haven’t been able to land more factories. We’ve staged plenty of golf tournaments, and lunches at all you can eat buffets, but instead of landing industries, we tend to get housing developments instead.
Funny how that works. When you are a bedroom community, you tend to attract a lot of bedrooms. Since people spend their money where they work, those who merely sleep in Chatham spend their money elsewhere. When they spend their money elsewhere, our community is depleted. Which means our past economic development approach has been wrong headed. Instead of putting our money on ideas, and small business (where most new jobs are created), we have been out hunting elephants. Instead of investing in water and sewer and vacant lots in hopes of catching some “industry,” we should invest in bandwidth so the affluent folks who pass through town when it is dark on their way to work, could stay home and telecommute. That way they might head to lunch in town, or figure out that we have a local hardware store where you can get actual answers from an actual human being. Instead of throwing a golf tournament for the captains of industry, we should be backing Chatham Arts or the Studio Tour.
Economic development should encourage the creative folks who pass by on their way to and from work to spend some money in our midst.
Or better yet, we should invest in incu bators and shared office space so that these people can actually work in Chatham.
My wife, Tami, was inspired by such a vision. She’s been wholly engaged in small business in Chatham for the past decade or so, and when she saw there was an opening for an Economic Development Officer, she floated her resume. She doesn’t golf. She’s obsessed with local economy. And anyone who has ever worked with her will confess that she could sell gravel to 3M.
Fortunately for me, our new political machine passed her by. It seems that the good folks at the Chatham Coalition and our fresh new board of commissioners prefer out of town talent.
Instead of re-inventing our economic development strategy, they have elected to hire UNC to consult with us on these important matters. Please. Hiring UNC, that bastion of status quo thinking up the hill, to help us with our economic development is like hiring a consultant to read our watch to tell us what time it is. It’s time to change our thinking. It’s time to shuck business-as-usual and do something different. The smart money is on sustainable agriculture. And clean energy companies. And co-ops. We should be insisting on zero-emission homes. The smart money is on eco-tourism—and tourism in general.
I wonder what the economic development incentive package was like for Shakori Hills. Whenever they throw their festival of music and dance, our county is packed with visitors. People spend their money where they visit.
If we want Chatham to be a vibrant and prosperous place to live, let’s not discharge our sewage into the Haw River—people come from all over to shoot Gabriel’s Bend in their kayaks and canoes. Let’s start valuing our night sky, and our clean air, and our quietude. Today these assets are less important to our tax base than a bunch of aban doned buildings—most of which have been left behind by an industrial era that moved away a long time ago.
Let’s accept that our economic development strategy to date has been a failure, and that any new approach should trans- form our community from a place to lay our heads to a destination for work, enter tainment, the arts, and small business. Forget catching an elephant.
The elephants moved to Indonesia a long time ago.