FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL
By. Neil Williamson, President
Albemarle County says that it is in favor of economic development. The former County Executive Tom Foley went so far as to say it is a “new day in Albemarle” regarding being open for business. A couple of supervisors have even gone on the road attempting to drum up public support for economic vitality.
I find myself thinking of the 1990’s science fiction series the X-files where two FBI agents, Fox Mulder the believer and Dana Scully the skeptic, investigate the strange and unexplained, while hidden forces work to impede their efforts.
Just as Fox Mulder in the X-Files, I want to believe Albemarle, but the facts keep getting in the way.
Please let me explain.
In big ways and small, Albemarle seems to be losing ground.
Losing Faith, Missing Deadlines
When Economic Development Director Faith McClintic resigned in October 2016, Foley stated:
I am pleased that Faith will continue leading the development of the county’s first economic development strategic plan through the plan’s presentation to the Board in mid-December, and we will work with her during that time to assist in her transition to her new job responsibilities in Richmond.
But that did not happen.
In the same article, McClintic seemingly dissed Albemarle stating:
“I have told the county that I will finish the economic development plan so that if they get the political will to do it, they will have a roadmap,” she said. [emphasis added –nw]
Perhaps because of her comments on her way out the door, McClintic did not complete the work she started.
We now understand a Richmond based consultant has been engaged to conduct stakeholder interviews and complete the economic development strategic plan with a late May delivery date to the Board of Supervisors.
Interestingly, as Albemarle’s Planning Commission seems to want the opportunity to weigh in on all sorts of issues beyond their direct scope of work, I was heartened when the Chairman wrote in an e-mail to the Free Enterprise Forum in Late July 2016:
“Last evening (7/26), under New Business (after your departure) the planning commissioners briefly discussed your comments under “matters from the public.” We wonder if you might expand on your thoughts in a 1-3 page “discussion piece” for our review, reflection and comment at a future meeting.
J. Timothy Keller – At-Large Commissioner and Chair
Albemarle Co. Planning Commission
Never one to turn away an opportunity to participate, I provided my Economic Development Homework Assignment from Albemarle PC. In the post I posed a simple question:
The question is not only does Albemarle want to compete – the question is does Albemarle want to win?
Despite specifically requesting my input for their “review, reflection and comment” the Planning Commission has yet to take up the six basic concepts we raised in our so called “thought paper”.
Perception is Reality
Last week, Virginia Business ran an article about “Getting on the Radar” regarding Richmond’s economic development efforts. Writer Paula Squires quoted national site consultant Tom Striger who explained why Austin, Texas is not as hot as it once was:
… he referred to Austin as a cautionary tale. For years, it enjoyed the buzz of being a young, hip, university town, and it drew corporate relocations.
Yet when Austin needed to invest in infrastructure, such as building new roads or expanding its airport, the city balked, Stringer said, out of fear of damaging its charm.
That’s where Austin has gone off the rails. People don’t go to Austin anymore.
It takes three years for a building permit, and there’s no incentives. You have to live 20 miles from the city or put the facility near San Antonio. ‘It’s a privilege to be in Austin.’ That’s the mindset you have to avoid.”[emphasis added –nw]
Back in 2015, during the Deschutes Brewery discussion we wrote about Albemarle’s New Day or Arrogance:
During my daughter’s accepted seniors college tour we heard two types of pitches from the schools she was considering the first “We are a great school, you are lucky to be considered” vs the college president saying directly “If you hear just one thing today please know, we want you here”. Guess which school we selected. …
…. Please do not return to the Albemarle Arrogance that says to those who want to operate a business “you’re lucky to be here” and instead say you are “open for business” [emphasis added –nw]
Albemarle could benefit from a good hard look in the mirror.
Yes, there are a couple champions for economic development on the Board of Supervisors, but they are not in the majority.
Five months after McClintic’s departure and with Foley now leading Stafford County, Albemarle is without a County Executive, without an Economic Development Director and without a strategic plan to move economic development forward.
But I still want to believe.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County.
By. Neil Williamson, President
Adapted from comments made to The Albemarle County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors April 19, 2016
Tonight, at your request, you have heard three presentations regarding local government’s role in economic development.
- Planners want to “Create Centers for Livability and Economic Development”.
- Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC) explained their plans to address transitioning workforce needs
- Albemarle’s own Director of Economic Development, Faith McClintic, described Economic Eco-systems as more than just buildings.
What purpose does the Planning Commission have investigating the topic of Economic Development?
In what world, should the appointed planning commission, which is advisory to the Board of Supervisors on land use matters, be examining how we train the workforce – don’t we have an elected school board, and 4 members on the PVCC Board for this function.
Perhaps rather than having staff spend time preparing a PowerPoint about how they think “Centers for Livability and Economic Development” should be designed, perhaps they could be directed to proactively remove overly prescriptive zoning regulations that make it illegal to park customer cars in front of a business. Current code philosophy is we don’t mind your business it’s your customers that are the problem (relegated parking).
Rather than asking what you can do to help PVCC train our workforce or helping the Economic Development Director to focus on the right businesses to come to Albemarle County, the Planning Commission (and Board of Supervisors) should DO THEIR JOB and focus on removing unnecessary regulatory barriers and streamlining the time (and money) consuming approval processes that doom many economic development projects before they even start.
Over the last four years, we have seen the accountability factor for our elected officials obfuscated by Citizen Councils and Planning Commission actions. We continue to believe these unelected bodies have too much power in the approval process and should be disbanded. Why not streamline the approval process for any project that already agrees with the community vetted Comprehensive Plan and send those proposals directly to the Board of Supervisors for action.
We have heard several horror stories of projects where businesses have walked away from Albemarle County after calculating the time and expense required to see an application from start to finish.
The Free Enterprise Forum understands it is human nature to want to do “something” about a perceived problem. Perhaps the best way to examine the problem is to recognize your role in the problem and heal thyself.
The best way for Albemarle County to increase economic development is to follow rule number 1 and get out of the way.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org
Photo Credits: Albemarle County, Free Enterprise Forum, Getty Images