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.

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"Think local self-reliance is far-fetched in a flat world? Lyle Estill's Small is Possible shows how it is being done for food, housing, energy, finance, health care, and just about everything else communities care about. A seasoned entrepreneur and social innovator, Estill tells fun-to-read stories that are engaging, insightful and practical. This book is an indispensable resource for community organizers and economic developers alike."
Michael Shuman, author and economist