DUBLIN — Dan Gerlach painted a somewhat bleak economic picture for the southeast portion of North Carolina on Tuesday, but he also managed to weave in the positive efforts being made to produce a positive outcome.
Gerlach, the president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, was the keynote speaker for the 46th annual meeting of the Southeastern Economic Development Commission at Lu Mil Vineyard. The SEDC serves 12 counties — including Bladen, Columbus, Robeson, Cumberland and Sampson.
“Part of our job is to help other people spend their money, but spend it wisely,” Gerlach said. “We aren’t thriving as much as we wish we could be or you wish we were.”
He pointed to a number of areas where the economic impact of Golden LEAF isn’t as strong as it once was. One of those reasons include the fact that the General Assembly has stripped the Foundation of its tobacco buyout funding.
“Does that mean Golden LEAF will spend its available money and die?” Gerlach asked. “No. But it means we will not grow as fast as we have in the past to meet the needs of the region.”
He also said the state’s unemployment rate is falling, but that the jobless rate for 18- to 24-year-olds isn’t improving, “and that’s where we need to focus more of our efforts.”
Gerlach also has some sharp words about the state’s Tier System.
“Everybody hates the Tier System. Everybody,” he said. “It’s not good. Everyone tries to find ways around it.”
But Gerlach said the Foundation will be looking for the best three projects from among each of the three “tiers” within the state — Tier I, which are the state’s most impoverished counties and includes Bladen; Tier II, which are the middle-of-the-road counties; and Tier III, which are the economically better off counties.
“There will be $1.5 million available per county, but it will be very competitive,” he said. “And multi-county projects are eligible and even preferred.”
Gerlach concluded by saying that the Foundation is focusing more on growing existing local businesses, and less on bringing new business to North Carolina.
Preceding Gerlach to the podium on Tuesday was Steve Yost, president of North Carolina Southeast, who pointed out that the state’s top three employers were government, health care and manufacturing.
“We lost quite a few manufacturing jobs over the years, but since 2010-11 we’ve seen that level off and even shown a small rise,” he said.
Next to speak was Greg Icard, the Scotland County economic development director, who gave some advice to the region’s economic developers — as well as put in a plug for a Bladen County success story.
“Rural counties like ours have to be much more pro-active and creative with our marketing plans,” he said. “Recently, we’ve modeled our efforts after what Chuck Heustess has done in Bladen with the incubator system, setting up what we’ve called the Small Business Innovation Center — a kind of one-stop shopping for small business needs.”
At the conclusion of the annual meeting, a business session was called to order and members voted to re-elect the existing slate of SEDC officers: Greg Icard of Scotland County, chairman; Gary Lanier of Columbus County, vice-chairman; Chuck Heustess of Bladen County, secretary/treasurer.