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With the issue of economic development being a key concern for many Bladen County Commissioners as well as citizens, some tough questions are being asked of those partners involved in the process.

Bladen County Economic Development Director and Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial Executive Director Chuck Heustess said, “In the 20 years I’ve been here, there has never been the first hiccup which is unheard of in economic development.”

Heustess said economic development can turn into a political football with various individuals seeking to take credit for projects. He said with the recent turn over of the Board of Commissioners, it is a good time to reassess where the county is in terms of economic development and where the county wants to go in the future. The Bladen County Board of Commissioners has four new members. One newly elected commissioner, David Gooden, has served on the board in the past.

During a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) session, County Commissioners discussed economic development weaknesses and expressed concerns about the issues. Heustess and Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial President, Robert Hester, said there are good things in the future for economic development in Bladen County.

According to Heustess, Bladen’s Bloomin’ is a entity which was started in 1990 and it was originally founded as a revolving loan fund. He said the money came from a rural business enterprise grant and when a company paid back the money they were loaned, Bladen’s Bloomin’ could then lend it to other businesses.

Heustess said that in 2001 to 2002 he started realizing Bladen County was not getting as many visits and requests from clients. He said he began to look at the visits the county was receiving and said what generated more traffic was having a vacant building.

“In the 2000s, Bladen County needed real estate. We had textile buildings but no one wanted to go in them,” said Heustess.

He said Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial was formed to handle the real estate (buildings) and eventually the Bladen’s Bloomin’ and Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial were merged into one.

Heustess said when Gildan was searching for a building, company representatives traveled to Bladen County and looked at a building that Woody Marlowe owned. “I realized that the county needed land and buildings,” said Heustess.

When asked how clients learn about Bladen County, Heustess said one way they learn about the County is through the efforts of North Carolina’s Southeast. Heustess said North Carolina’s Southeast will go out and find the clients interested in the southeastern area. He said the clients will usually have a list of certain needs they are attempting to fulfill. For example, Heustess said a typical list might have such things as the community must have available sewer capacity, natural gas, interstate highway access, etc.

Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial President, Robert Hester, said that one impediment to economic development is the fact there is no natural gas available in the Elizabethtown Industrial Park. In the Bladenboro Industrial Park, the town does not have a lot of sewer capacity available.

Heustess said if you don’t have what a company is looking for they will visit other locations in an attempt to locate a property that best satisfies their needs. He said a plus for Bladen County is the fact we have land and we have buildings.

Both Heustess and Hester said Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial and Bladen County Economic Development are partners and work together to try to bring new industries to Bladen County. Hester added the two entities work together to increase the tax base and bring new jobs to the county.

Heustess said that Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial does not take on retail projects. However, he did say, over time that has changed to include such projects as call centers and things the community found beneficial.

When asked about his role with Bladen County Economic Development and his role with Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial, Heustess said, “Every day I work 100 percent for the Bladen County Economic Development Commission.”

He said that when someone comes to look at three buildings, he said the ownership of the buildings could be that one is owned by private citizen, one building is owned by a company that has already relocated, and the third building is owned by Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial. Heustess said he shows them all three buildings as if they are all owned by the same entity.

Heustess said he writes grants for both Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial and the county. He said he has worked with Elizabethtown to write water and sewer grants and has worked with Bladenboro to write a grant for a medical clinic located there.

Heustess said they have received grants for Bladen’s Bloomin’ to construct buildings. He said they have received grants of just over $5 million.

He said the in terms of economic development the county has been the beneficiary of several projects. Heustess pointed out there have been several expansions at DuPont including a Teflon project and two Tedlar projects to name a few.

Heustess said the funds from the grants received don’t always come to the county. Instead, he said he may be writing a grant from the county standpoint but the money goes to the industry as an incentive for their project.

One concern expressed by Commissioners is why has the Economic Development Advisory Board met only two or three times a year. He said the advisory board meets two or three times per year. He said they were originally founded as an industrial commission.

Robert Hester said, “I was on the economic development board and we didn’t meet regularly then.”

Heustess said most of the time, with a project, he meets directly with the County Commissioners Board because time is of the essence for the project. Heustess said economic development today is so fast paced, there may not be enough time to call for a meeting of the Economic Development Advisory Board and then meet with the commissioners, too.

Heustess said currently, the county is in the process of trying to standardize the Economic Development Commission. He said he had only recently seen the bylaws for the Economic Development Advisory Board.

“We’re going to standardize the meetings and go back to the bylaws and get them standardized in a way that fits the way we do economic development,” said Heustess.

Robert Hester said for example, when the NC DMV Call Center project developed, the commissioners had two weeks to get money for the project. “My point is you can’t drag around any more,” said Hester.

Heustess said now the question is “How do we do these things from here forward?” He said that will be addressed when they standardize the meetings and the bylaws for the Economic Development Advisory Board.

Robert Hester said after Paul Butler left as Economic Development Director, there were two others that came and served as directors, but everything fell apart. Hester said when Heustess was hired, pieces were slowly put back together again.

There are concerns some people have had regarding a 2012 law suit involving a county in North Carolina being sued over their methods of economic development.

Heustess said there are very specific rules about how counties can conduct business. He said that in the past, before he took over as Economic Development Director, there was no real estate involved. Heustess said because of the state’s constitution, a county can’t just purchase real estate in the same manner a private citizen can. Instead, there are very specific rules that the county must follow.

For example, the county can erect a building. When the county chooses to build a building, everything about that specific project has to be public. If a company is looking at buying the building, all of the correspondence regarding the building becomes part of the public record.

The second thing impacted is timeliness. Heustess said county owned buildings have to be advertised and you have to have public hearings and go through an upset bid process, which can become lengthy.

The third element is liability. If the county is leasing the buildings it builds and there is an accident at one of the buildings, the victim may sue not only the company but the county as well.

Heustess said the county doesn’t have to do go through the real estate process. He said Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial is taking the risk.

When it comes to funding opportunities for projects, there are not as many granting sources as there once were. Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial is seeking to erect at least two new buildings. The county has actually set aside $144,000 in sales taxes collected on services collected during the 2015-16 budget year. This same tax on services was not in place in 2014-15, but has been adjusted to increase tax revenue the next tax year of 2016-17.

The County Commissioners were under the impression they could grant these funds to Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial to build buildings, but have since learned it is unconstitutional in North Carolina. Heustess said that is why the county is looking at the possibility of the county building a building and selling it to Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial.

Heustess said there are two ways the county can do this — one is at public auction or they can sell it for the appraised value. A third option is the county can retain ownership of the building and lease it themselves undertaking all of the associated liabilities.

Concerns were expressed at a commissioner’s meeting individuals were requesting to meet with Heustess, but could not get an appointment. Heustess said, “I can’t think of anyone I didn’t meet with.”

He said he has individuals approach him about solar farm projects. Heustess said solar farms are not considered industrial projects. He also added that he does not know all of the ins and outs concerning solar farms. He said with a solar farm, one must have a power purchase agreement in place among other things. Heustess said much of the work with solar farms is done through the county planning department.

“Our mission is industrial. There have been certain things that come up the county has asked if can we do this or that,” said Heustess.

Some examples of projects under taken by Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-industrial are an expansion for Carolina Blueberry and Simply Organic; some projects that were not industrial in nature include the NC DMV Call Center. Heustess said the Call Center project was under taken because the state needed somewhere to go that was a tier one county. Another non-industrial project was the Job Link center and a health care project in Bladenboro.

A final concern voiced was Heustess’ income. Robert Hester said, “We’re paying Chuck to manage our investment.” He said, the pay is entirely dependent on performance.

Hester said originally, the pay from Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial went through the county. The reasons Bladen’s Bloomin Agri-Industrial incentives were done for Heustess was because Heustess was offered another job and the County wanted to keep him here but, at that time, the county budget was tight, said Hester.

Hester said at the time one or maybe two county commissioners approached Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial and asked if the non-profit company could increase a portion of what they were paying because Heustess had an offer to go elsewhere for $90,000 in salary. Hester said Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial agreed to increasing the incentive pay for the County Director.

Heustess said he is actually paid about $26,000 by Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial. He said the numbers that are reported as his salary on the IRS Form 990s include bonuses that are paid to him during years when Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial performs well. The bonus is paid at a rate of 10 percent of the growth as an incentive to grow the organization.

He is also paid $75,214.82 plus travel of $7,800.00 annually, from Bladen County, according to Bladen County Finance Director Lisa Coleman. This does not include any other benefits or bonuses.

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