Albemarle Supervisors meet with Economic Development Authority (EDA)

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors agreed Wednesday to move forward with studying the creation of an economic development office, but fell short of agreeing to spend money on the endeavor.

“I’m not prepared [yet] to vote to create a cost center of $160,000 per year in the county without better understanding what the goals are,” said Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker said.

The lack of a full endorsement angered two Republican supervisors who reluctantly voted in favor of a motion to direct staff to gather more data on how other communities operate their economic development departments. Supervisor Duane E. Snow considered the move as a “full retreat” in the county’s effort to improve its image to the business community.

“I would say we’re charging backwards,” Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd said. “It’s a travesty what just happened.”

Supervisors adopted a three-year economic vitality action plan in August 2010 that sought to identify ways Albemarle could increase its image and streamline regulations.

Accomplishments are said to include shortening the development approval process and widening the number of uses allowed in land zoned for industrial uses.

To advance the work of the plan, staff had asked for tentative support for a budget of up to $160,000, though the actual amount would not be known until the budget process gets underway. The money would go towards a director and secretary.

County Executive Thomas H. Foley said the office would take an active role in identifying sites for businesses that might want to locate or expand in the county.

“If one of our targeted industries is interested in coming here, they set up a visit to come, and we have to have something to show them,” Foley said.

“You can be a great attractive community with all kinds of assets but, at the end of the day, if they come to make a visit and there’s no product ready for them to occupy, they’re going to quickly look for a community where they can go,” he added.

That approach concerned Rooker.

“I am hesitant of what sounds like we’re going in the direction of creating industrial parks,” he said. Rooker said he supported the economic vitality plan, but was not sure if he could support creating a specific department without better understanding what the goals would be.

Boyd said he had one metric he wanted to measure.

“Jobs,” Boyd exclaimed. “It’s plain and simple jobs. I want to see an improvement in the poverty situation in this community and I would like to see career-level jobs for people, and that’s what this has been about from the beginning.”

Boyd said he wanted the office to focus on eliminating “regulatory obstacles” to companies seeking to come to Albemarle, rather than an office that seeks to create buildings for would-be businesses to locate.

However, Rooker said, that was not what staff was recommending.

John Lowry, chair of the Albemarle Economic Development Authority, encouraged supervisors to move the proposal forward. He said the plan has signaled the county’s willingness to attract new jobs.

“We have come a long way from the policies of Albemarle’s past and are beginning to have an image as a business-friendly county,” Lowry said.

However, John Martin, a resident of Free Union, suggested the county should gather more information from other communities before moving forward.

“For each of the benchmark counties, it would be helpful to know the tax rate, the total county budget, and whether the revenue for the economic development programs in those counties comes from tax revenues or fees and charges,” he said.

Mallek agreed with Martin, and asked for that data to be collected before the matter comes back before the board.

Snow said it would be ‘detrimental’ to not move forward now.

“We’ve spent three years developing a plan that would fit this community and I think to not take this next step would be irresponsible,” Snow said.

Foley said he would gather more information about programs in other communities and return before the board in the coming months. He also suggested a public hearing will be held.

“The decision ultimately needs to be made during the budget process,” Foley said. “It’s more important that we do this right than we do it quickly.”