One mayor’s advice to Siler City mayoral candidates on economic development

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 10/11/19

One thing we’ve explored a couple times in this newspaper is the role of the mayor’s office in economic development, particularly in the Town of Siler City.

U.S. Census data on the town shows …

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One mayor’s advice to Siler City mayoral candidates on economic development

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One thing we’ve explored a couple times in this newspaper is the role of the mayor’s office in economic development, particularly in the Town of Siler City.

U.S. Census data on the town shows an area that, in one way, is stagnant economically. Siler City’s median household income is $27,124, with per capita income in the last year at $14,302. With an asterisk that “estimates are not comparable to other geographic levels due to methodology differences that may exist between different data sources,” the Census data says, Siler City’s poverty rate is projected to be 29.1 percent.

The City of Sanford, just south of the Chatham County border, has some similarities to Siler City. There’s a sizable Hispanic population; 20 percent of Sanford’s citizens live in poverty, and per capita income is $21,767. No, it’s not the same, but the situations are different.

With one exception: Sanford is booming.

Sanford and Lee County have been home to three major job announcements within the last 14 months. Japanese-based manufacturer Dowa Thermotech announced last August that it would build a new facility in Sanford, bringing $22.5 million of investment and creating 109 new jobs.

The other two have come within the last 90 days. This August, pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer announced a $500 million, 300-job expansion at its Sanford plant. Last month, India-based automobile component manufacturer Bharat Forge said it was bringing 460 jobs and $170 million of investment to Lee County.

That’s $692.5 million and 869 new jobs, just from three projects. That’s something Siler City would love to have. And Sanford Mayor Chet Mann said he thinks he has the solution.

“Siler City has got every opportunity in Chatham County,” Mann told me last week. “They’ve got so much going on good that it’s the time to put a plan together and elevate your economic development effort. It’s really about who can bring the community together to get the shared buy-in. It takes some bold leadership.”

Sanford has benefited, Mann said, in three particular areas that he feels Chatham County and Siler City in particular can emulate if they want to take advantage of Siler City’s assets — a megasite, proximity to a major highway and a workforce that for the most part travels elsewhere to work.

First, Mann said, the city benefited from a plan. On the campaign trail in 2013, he introduced what he called an “Open for Business” agenda that focused on “efforts on pro-growth initiatives and seek quality of life improvements that will stimulate growth, reward our current citizens, and attract newcomers to our area.”

“We recognized in Sanford that things had changed and we’re not growing,” Mann said. “So we wanted to run on an ‘Open for Business’ campaign and revive the community. We recognized that our effort and our structure just needed to be improved. From an economic development standpoint, we just did not have an effective way of doing things anymore.”

Having that plan, he said, allowed for both private and public partners to buy into a mission and a vision. Mann and others went to the private business community and raised more than $1 million to stimulate the area’s economic development machine — now called the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, or SAGA — that created a “one-stop shop” for all things economy. The Chamber of Commerce and economic development efforts were under one roof, and soon the planning and zoning departments for the city moved into the same building.

That private investment wouldn’t come, Mann said, without the government stepping forward and showing it was willing to invest. Sanford worked on revitalizing its downtown and got bonds passed to upgrade the city’s parks and greenways system.

“You’ve got to invest your funds and show the private community that you’ve done it,” he said. “But they will not go first. You’ve got to lead with public funds and they’ll come in behind you.”

Finally, Mann said, collaboration is needed. The City of Sanford and the Lee County Government collaborated on an incentives package, constructing a spec building at the Central Carolina Enterprise Park (CCEP) site and pooled resources to support SAGA. The success didn’t come overnight — Mann’s plan was birthed in 2013, and six years later the benefits seem to be coming — but he says it will come if there’s a vision.

“You’ve got to have a vision and you’ve got to be able to share the vision,” Mann said. “When you get everybody working together on that shared vision, it will happen. You’ve got to take that leap of faith and get the buy-in from the community leaders and hope that you make the best educated guess you can as to where and how you need to do things.”

On a side note: I’ve been there for some of the planning steps of Sanford’s sudden business success. I covered local government in Sanford and Lee County for two years for a newspaper there, and I wrote about some of the discussions about building a nice, lighted sign at the CCEP, investing in water and sewer extensions to both the CCEP and Chatham County’s Moncure Megasite and the county supplying broadband extensions to the CCEP. And now, Dowa Thermotech is locating there, and Bharat Forge isn’t too far from the site. Mann said the CCEP brought Bharat Forge to the area, and there are currently four active projects looking at the site and the spec building.

From Mann’s perspective, the mayor’s role is to have a plan, a vision, and to work hard to execute that vision. We’ll see if the Siler City mayoral candidates bring such a vision to their time in office.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR, where he’ll be tweeting “The Office” reaction GIFs.

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