Rick Edwards, 64, remembers a “booming and bustling” Columbus County of decades ago. In his new role as chairman of the Columbus Jobs Foundation, Edwards is content as a behind-the-scenes force to bring the boom and bustle back.
The former Columbus County Committee of 100 has done more than change its name, Edwards said. The Columbus Jobs Foundation brings a “new burst of life” to economic development, he said.
The private economic development organization has a greater countywide focus today, he said.
“The goals of Columbus Jobs Foundation are not only to work to bring prospects to the Southeast Regional Park but to bring prospects to Delco, to Tabor City, and Fair Bluff ,” he said. “It’s all about the whole 954 acres in this county.”
The “silent partner” in economic development works with the County Economic Development Commission, director Gary Lanier and county commissioners to bring jobs to the area.
An opportunity to be a partner in a car dealership with the Neuwirth family brought Edwards, a 1974 graduate of Wofford College and former bank loan officer, to Whiteville decades ago.
In the late 80s, Edwards and his brother purchased the car dealership and another in Shallotte. He also operated five rental stores that he sold by 1998.
Edwards’ work in helping his father grow his business, Affordable Dentures, is perhaps one of his biggest accomplishments. He retired as vice president of the company in charge of mergers and acquisitions and siting new stores.
“I traveled all over the country,” Edwards said.
The company had about 40 locations in 2006 and more than 200 locations in 42 states by the time Edwards retired in March this year.
“It had become the largest provider of dentures in the nation,” Edwards said.
His passion for business appears to run in the family.
Edwards and wife, Abbie, have two adult children. His daughter Harriet is CEO of Wine and Design USA and son Richard is in the dental business in Wilmington.
“Things were going along for the county very well back then but over a period of time we lost textiles, we lost tobacco, we lost our bank management team (United Carolina Bank) through an acquisition, and at that point in time the county began eroding backwards in economic development,” Edwards said.
In the 1980s, the Columbus County Committee of 100 was formed by a number of prosperous businessmen in the community and played a key role in attracting industry to the area.
By the late 1990s the committee had purchased land between Chadbourn and Whiteville for an industrial park but by 2006 economic development struggled.
“Not much really happened and the great recession knocked everybody out of the ball park for a few years,” Edwards said.
Earlier this year, an aging board found new energy in brining new board members into leadership roles.
“The board decided there should be a new name give to the committee and there was a new burst of life into the organization,” Edwards said.
Membership has increased 30 percent and two separate anonymous donations of $10,000 have been earmarked for economic development travel and research, he said.
The attitude that Edwards shares with fellow Columbus Jobs Foundation members is that economic development should be countywide.
“If we are approached or asked, we will use our broad intellectual, political and financial resources to try to enhance economic development,” Edwards said.
As a private entity, Edwards said the organization is a silent partner in making things happen.
“We can act upon things faster,” Edwards said.
The entity also offers loans to businesses.
“The revolving loan fund is a great thing that has not been used much at all,” Edwards said.
Seed money for the revolving loan fund comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said.
“If we need to secure more we can,” Edwards said. “We would like business trying to expand or start up to come see us. We will take a look at your request and needs.”
He added that part of that process involves making a judgment on the ability of the borrower to repay the loan.
Edwards is not shy about tapping into all resources available.
“Sandy McNeill has loaned us his airplane several times to fly prospects in and out,” Edwards said. “By acting faster, that really gets those folks attention.”
Local attorneys and accountants have also offered their services, he said, and local car dealerships have provided vehicles to show prospects the area.
“Many business people in the community have asked to help us,” Edwards said. “We are a silent partner but if asked to help we will be Johnny on the Spot. In my opinion, it’s all about telling it and selling it.”
Several prospects that have come to the county are “very impressed with our local community leaders,” Edwards said.
Through his work with Affordable Dentures and other business ventures, Edwards developed perseverance.
“I am a businessman. I have helped to develop a company from a struggling dental entity to the nation’s leader,” Edwards said.
He knew in retirement he wanted to stay busy and he saw an opportunity to do that in his volunteer work with the Columbus Jobs Foundation. At his first meeting he was elected chairman.
“I knew I would need the challenge,” he said.
“Since I joined, I have been very involved. I’ve spent quite a few hours talking to prospects, talking to political leaders and trying to make things happen,” he said.
Edwards said there is a real need for an industrial park in the Delco area.
He praised the commissioners’ vote to approve a $1.8 million incentive to bring a rail service back to the county.
“The railroad is going to be a huge plus for us and the expansion of the railroad may be a fantastic shot in the arm. The $1.8 million the commissioners put up was the best $1.8 million ever spent in Columbus County. There is going to be job creation from that rail,” he said.
“The R.J. Corman railroad management team is highly respected as one of the best in the country. I guarantee you that more jobs will be created because of this railroad than what has been created in the past 20 years.”
Edwards said economic development goes beyond recruiting industry. “We want to bring business into this county, not only on the industrial side but the recreational side, too. Our natural resources are huge in this county,” he said.
In moving ahead, Edwards said Columbus Jobs has high expectations.
“The goals that we have set are far greater than any private economic committee has ever set,” he said.
“I am very passionate about making Columbus County a better place to live and work,” Edwards said.
He realizes that his passion alone won’t bring change.
“It ain’t all about me,” Edwards said. “I don’t work like that. We have a full slate of qualified board members.”
Les High is vice chairman.
“He holds my feet to the ground,” Edwards said.
For now, not much is slowing Edwards down.
“We need to work harder and faster than we have ever worked before,” he said.
“At this point we are presently working with four different prospects . . . If they come to fruition we could have close to 1,000 jobs added. Economic recruitment is like selling anything. You’ve got to sell, sell, sell. Sometimes you get them and sometimes you don’t.”
Edwards said he has experience lobbying for Affordable Dentures. His interest in politics began in college when he interned at the legislature.
“We have been involved with political leaders and know them on a first name basis,” he said.
“We have the ability to reach out to Raleigh or Washington.”
The end of lucrative tax credits tied to job creation in the most economically depressed counties poses a greater challenger for developers in rural areas like Columbus County.
“Those incentives are very important,” Edwards said. “But you have to say lets take a lemon and make lemonade out of it and keep on plugging.”
“Working with Rick, I jokingly tell people, is kind of like trying to ride a tornado. He has so much energy and wants to see our county grow and develop,” said Lanier. “His enthusiasm is infectious. He wants what is best for Columbus and his goal is to help us get jobs.”
Rebranding the Committee of 100 as the Columbus Jobs Foundation is a step in the right direction, Lanier said.
“Every county across the state has had a Committee of 100. It doesn’t allow you to differentiate yourself. When you rebrand, you are giving the organization a fresh start.”
Lanier said the name says it all.
“It shows where the organization’s main purpose and direction lies,” Lanier said. “The relationship between organizations is important because competition is fierce when it comes to job recruitment. In economic development, everyone is fighting from one end of this state to the other. I need all the help I can get . . . everyone plays a key role. This is just a partnership that is extremely helpful to me and job recruiting efforts across all of Columbus County.”