Some firms, county at odds

To most residents, Feb. 29 meant an added day brought about by a leap year.

To the 120 backers of Cabarrus Jobs Now, an organization begun last year by local business owners to spur job growth, it meant the opportunity to steer the county back on course after what they believe was a sharp veer off track.

Long unhappy with the county commissioners' decision two years ago to ease back on traditional methods of economic development in favor of alternative approaches, organizers of the advocacy group watched as the noon Feb. 29 deadline to file as a candidate for commissioner brought seven people into the running for the two seats available on the board.

Cabarrus Jobs Now organizers hope someone in that bunch will jump on their platform, which pushes for economic growth through conventional means that have brought jobs to the county in the past.

It's likely any candidate willing to restore full funding to Cabarrus Economic Development Corp., Cabarrus Jobs Now's chief complaint with current commissioners, will have their support.

Cabarrus Jobs Now formed in response to the county commissioners' decision to cut funding to the Cabarrus Economic Development Corp. by $200,000. The CEDC is largely responsible for recruiting businesses to the area.

Although commissioners later restored $50,000 from the initial cut, backers of Cabarrus Jobs Now, such as business owner Doug Stafford, say it's not enough.

"We really felt that was not a wise decision on their part," said Stafford, who owns and operates three hotels in Cabarrus County. "We've seen a number of successes that have come from the CEDC's efforts to recruit new businesses."

Without those efforts, said Stafford, businesses like Celgard, a lithium battery membrane supplier, may not have decided to expand in Cabarrus County, bringing 250 jobs.

CEO John Cox said the Cabarrus Economic Development Corp. has felt the pinch with less funding, and has had to opt out of conventions where important introductions between the county and prospects often take place.

"When you cut back on the relationship-building and the travel that goes along with it, you're cutting back your access to potential leads," said Cox.

County Commissioner Chris Measmer, who was not on the board when the initial decision to cut funding took place in 2010, said the board has not abandoned traditional methods, but has added other avenues to bring jobs as well.

"We have two approaches," said Measmer. "Recruiting business here, and with the sustainability council, nurturing the businesses that are already here - the smaller, family-owned businesses."

Last year, the commissioners launched the Council for a Local Sustainable Economy, after paid consultant Michael Shuman with Cutting Edge Capital, a Maryland economic development consulting firm, advised that the county would prosper more by focusing on small, locally owned businesses and farms instead of efforts to recruit large industries.

Since then, a tug-of-war has divided business owners and government leaders into two camps: one focusing on luring large business and the other on fostering small local business.

Which kinds bring in the most dollars, and how many of those dollars stay local, is at the heart of the argument.

Measmer, whose family owns three restaurants and a catering business in the county, said traditional methods, including dangling incentives to lure companies, are unfair to local small businesses.

"I have voted against each and every incentive package that has come before our board," he said. "For a small business owner who has grown a business from nothing to 120 employees, it makes him feel a little left out."

But Jobs Now backers like Stafford say not using incentives is costing the county its competitive edge.

"We would love to be able to wave a magic wand and make incentives go away," Stafford said, "but unfortunately our competition around us uses them, so it's an arrow we must keep in our quiver."

Both methods of bringing job growth are important, said Gary Walker, who owns Walker Marketing in Concord. "But when you're putting resources behind a sustainable business effort and you're doing it to the detriment of a traditional economic development recruitment effort, that's a problem."

Although "527" groups like Cabarrus Jobs Now - tax-exempt advocacy organizations - cannot endorse a particular candidate, Walker, who joined Cabarrus Jobs Now last year, hopes the agency can help them by educating voters on which candidates favor Cabarrus Jobs Now's economic approach.

"We can create the environment that will hopefully assist those candidates that are pro-business and pro-economic development in their efforts to get elected," said Walker.