During a recent tour of area merchants, Cornelius’s new economic development consultant Don Harrow heard a theme emerge: Business is about as good or better than 2011 but the town needs to lighten up on some of its business regulations.
“Every business we walked in was very pleased that we would take time to stop in and hear from them about their concerns,” Harrow said. “Going forward, we’re going to need to work with and help these existing businesses be as healthy as they can be.”
Cornelius commissioners voted on Dec. 3 to hire Harrow for the newly created economic development consultant position.
The contract, adopted on Dec. 5, says that Harrow will work up to 25 hours a week for the town and will be paid $5,000 a month at least through June 30. The town can decide to renew his contract for yearly terms after that.
“I think it’s a very good opportunity because as the economy picks up, there will be more economic activity and Cornelius is pretty well situated for success,” Harrow said.
The town board’s decision followed months of discussions about how to improve Cornelius’s reputation for being tough on business, given the town’s land use zones and permitting process.
“We do not make it easy for a business to want to come here,” said Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte. “That’s got to change or Don’s going to have to be a hell of a salesman.”
Harrow, who has worked in development and public policy consulting in the private sector for the last several years, said he plans to use the next several months to strengthen relationship with local merchants.
Cornelius commissioner John Bradford and Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce president Bill Russell recently visited local businesses with Harrow.
Most of the owners commented that the town’s signage ordinance on banners and sidewalk signs prevented them from effectively marketing their business, Bradford said.
“There appears to be some public perception that it is hard to start or run a business in Cornelius,” Bradford said . “The fact that this topic comes up regularly is a problem in itself.”
More than just working on business retention in town, Harrow said he also wants to form stronger relationships with local developers and real estate agents and brokers.
“I believe economic development is a team sport. It involves a lot of players,” Harrow said. “There are things you can do to be proactive, but it also takes the private sector and investments.”
He has also started becoming increasingly imbedded in the regional economic development community, such as the Lake Norman EDC, Charlotte Regional Partnership and the Charlotte Chamber.
“It’s important that they know that Cornelius is now proactive and engaged,” Harrow, 57, said.
So far, Harrow said that some of the greatest challenges he sees in the town is a lack of shovel-ready land for a large industry to locate to Cornelius.
Harrow, a River Run resident in Davidson, also noted a large number of vacant commercial space. To address that problem, one of Harrow’s first goals is to determine the number of vacant commercial space in town and put that information on the town’s website for potential investors.
Ultimately, Harrow wants to develop an economic development plant that is “well-defined and actionable” and “won’t sit on a shelf.”
Town officials said they’re optimistic about what Harrow can do for the town’s local economy.
“It is my hope that Don will continue (to) reach out to current business owners to make sure they know the town appreciates their loyalty to Cornelius and we truly care about their success,” Bradford said.
Tarte said his hope for Harrow’s tenure with the town comes down to one thing: jobs.
“It’s not going to happen overnight but we need to bring jobs to the community,” Tarte said. “That’s really the only objective that really matters.”
Arriero: 704-777-7070; Twitter: @earriero
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