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  • Allen Turner

Downtown economic development incentives on county agenda

The Columbus County Board of Commissioners will conduct a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. today (Monday) to consider changes to the county’s economic development incentive (EDI) grant policy and then, later in their meeting, consider whether to approve the proposal.

The proposed changes are patterned after incentives already adopted by the City of Whiteville, incentives which would exempt from property taxation for five years any improvements made to businesses for renovation and expansion. While Whiteville’s program has no cap, the proposed policy commissioners will consider would limit the incentive to either $250,000 or $200,000, depending on seemingly contradictory language in the document.

A brochure on the City of Whiteville’s program, after which the proposed county program would be modeled, explains that “The program is for property owners to take part in and is intended to encourage the rehabilitation and redevelopment of older buildings and promise growth and new commercial development in the downtown area … Goals are to reduce blight, increase property values, support locally-owned businesses, control urban sprawl and grow the downtown area … Upon successful application, the city will grant back a portion of the property owner’s annual taxes based on the property’s increase in value.”

County Economic Developer Gary Lanier will present the proposal to commissioners and Whiteville Mayor Terry Mann and City Manager Darren Currie will attend in support of the measure. Gene Merritt, director of the Whiteville Downtown Development Commission, might also attend.

“We’re certainly in favor of the proposal,” Merritt said Friday. “After the City of Whiteville passed their policy allowing for economic incentives in the downtown area, we went to the county and asked them to do it on a countywide basis.”

Merritt said the county concept is broader than just affecting downtown areas. “It (the proposed policy) involves every aspect of area economic development, which I think is a good thing. We’re very much in favor of it, and I hope the county commissioners approve it.

“It will give us another tool, a stronger tool, in getting people to rehabilitate buildings. In other words, we’ve already got the city incentive, which is good, but by getting the county on top of it, then it will be an attractive financial incentive for someone to build or renovate a building in downtown Whiteville or elsewhere in the county,” Merritt said.

The Whiteville Downtown Development Commission is happy with the proposal, and Merritt said, “We’re pleased that the county is working with us on this and I hope it’ll be smooth sailing. We are excited and we look forward to it passing. It will help us out a lot.”

Currie said that he expects Mann to address commissioners to urge them to adopt the policy. Under the guidelines in the proposed county policy, county commissioners would consider, in deciding whether to award such grants, factors like total capital investment, including site acquisition and improvement, building and equipment costs, the number, type and quality of jobs to be created, wage levels for created jobs and the potential for future expansions and increased employment or the effect on the project on other economic growth and benefits for the county.

The county’s Economic Development Commission would review each EDI project application to ensure projects meet minimum requirements before consideration by the county commissioners. Those requirements would be a minimum $250,000 level of capital investment, creation of jobs whose wage levels represent a “competitive improvement” for county citizens, and the project must increase the level of employment in the county, keep the county from losing jobs or protect the county’s tax base.

To qualify, such projects must involve the redevelopment of a business district in the downtown area of any town or municipality which is designated as a “Central Business District, “Downtown Re-Development District” or a similar designation.

Although at one point in the proposed policy, a minimum level of capital investment is set at $250,000, another part of the document says, “The minimum investment must meet or exceed $200,000 to be eligible for grant consideration.”

Grant funds could be used for site acquisition and preparation, internal site infrastructure and other improvements to the site, equipment, job training costs for workers and “other purposes which leave value in the community” as determined by the board of commissioners on a project-by-project basis.

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