Edwards: County needs to tie into regional growth
Rick Edwards, who is stepping down Jan. 1 as chairman of the Columbus County Jobs Foundation, sees the infusion of youth and diversity into leadership roles as the keys to continued economic development efforts in the county.
Involved in economic development matters in the county since 1981, Edwards is taking a break. He became involved in the old Columbus County Committee of 100 in 1981 and led the group’s efforts three years ago to morph into the Columbus Jobs Foundation.
Although Edwards is no longer on the board of the Jobs Foundation in the near future, he says he’ll still be available as an ambassador for economic development matters in the county.
Three years ago, in January 2015, the Committee of 100 under Edwards’ leadership rebranded itself as the Columbus Jobs Foundation, and he has served as chairman of the group since that time.
Edwards will step away from an active role in the group and Les High, editor of The News Reporter, will become the new chairman. Edwards gives himself a letter grade of “C” in his efforts to lead economic development efforts here, but his successor, High, differs.
“Rick deserves an A,” says High. “The county has been very lucky to have someone devote so much time, energy and expertise to economic development. It was almost like having a full-time volunteer.”
High credits Edwards with revitalizing the Committee of 100 and rebranding it into the Jobs Foundation. “He brought an entrepreneurial background to the organization and made a big push to get young people involved in economic development,” High says. “Broadening the number of people involved, and broadening the ages and ethnicity. Because of Rick’s work, this should be a good year ahead for economic development in Columbus County.”
Edwards, 66, first came to Columbus County in 1980 as a franchise automobile dealer and, although he has been out of the car business for several years now, he has remained actively involved in economic development matters.
He was involved in the formation of the Committee of 100 in 1981 and, under his leadership, the name of the group was changed three years ago to the Columbus County Jobs Foundation, a group of business and civic leaders created to highlight the attributes that make Columbus County an ideal location for business and industry. The group works with county government to create local incentive packages for new business and industry and has a revolving loan fund for start-up businesses. In the last three years, under Edwards’ leadership, the organization has loaned out $325,000 in low interest loans to help businesses in the county. The group has federal Internal Revenue Service 501(c)(3) designation, which means that contributions are tax deductible.
Edwards is bullish on prospects for economic development in Columbus County, but he believes that new attitudes – and new blood – are necessary in county leadership to see the county realize its full potential.
“There’s no question,” Edwards says. “We need to see to see some major changes on the Columbus County board of commissioners before we can get going economically. I’ve told many, many county commissioners that we need to put some young folks on that board. They are the future, and they’re the ones who are going to make it happen. There’s no question in my mind.”
Never shy about possibly risking stepping on toes, Edwards sees the needs for new blood, not only on the board of county commissioners, but also on city councils and on the Economic Development Commission, as keys.
“I told an Economic Development Commission meeting in October that I think the commissioners and the EDC should replace themselves with young folks, because young folks are the future of our county,” he says.
Edwards says, “I guess I have had a good run at the Jobs Foundation, but I have not accomplished what I set out to accomplish. I certainly want to thank the board of directors who have served, but our county needs to open its eyes. We are right here on the verge of growth in New Hanover, Brunswick and Horry counties, and we’ve got to somehow be proactive in getting those other counties to partner with us.”
He sees his stepping down from the chairmanship of the Jobs Foundation as a changing of the guard. High will serve a one-year term as chairman and be followed by Columbus Regional Healthcare CEO Carla Hollis.
Edwards sees regional cooperation as vital to continued economic development in the county. “We have partnered with New Hanover County and with the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce on regional economic expansion, and we expect that to continue,” he says.
“You have to go out and get it. We need to do the same thing, too, with Horry County, because Horry is coming right up the road next to us.”
He says the Columbus Jobs Foundation has done a “fantastic” job of loaning money to help businesses establish themselves here. “When we came in, we hadn’t loaned any money for years and years, but over the last three years or so we have awarded about $325,000 in low-interest loans to help businesses get up and running.”
Edwards also feels that Columbus County needs to unite. “It took me a long time to realize this, and I’ve been here since 1980, but Columbus County is kind of divided into a North Carolina version and a South Carolina version. It’s amazing. You go down U.S. 74, and it’s a North Carolina version. You go down U.S. 701 and it’s a South Carolina version, and so the county’s divided that way, so uniting the county is extra, extra hard when people’s focus is on Wilmington, on the one hand, and on Myrtle Beach, on the other.”
“The folks on the Tabor side of the county never go to Wilmington, and vice versa, but the Jobs Foundation always has preached that the Cape Fear River bridge (in Wilmington) and the North Myrtle Beach bridge are only 20 miles from our county lines, and that’s where the growth is going on. That’s where it is going to come from, and we’ve really got to concentrate on Brunswick, New Hanover and Horry counties,” he says.
“Those folks (New Hanover, Brunswick and Horry) are going to run out of space. There’s no question about it. And Columbus County is the place that can absorb the industrial, and jobs, growth,” he adds.
Edwards is particularly excited about the involvement of younger people and more ethnically diverse people in economic development here and says that diversity is the key to the future in Columbus County.
High, Edwards’ successor as head of the Jobs Foundation, predicts that Edwards will continue to be called on for years to come. Gary Lanier, Columbus County’s Economic Development director, agrees. “It has been a pleasure and an adventure working with Rick for the last three years. He always been there when we’ve needed him to help,” Lanier says.
“He’s always been there working for what’s in the best interests of Columbus County. He will be sorely, sorely missed, but we know where he lives, and we know where we can get up with him when we need him.”