Editorial: Tweaking incentives

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Incentives policies can be counted on to stir debate and inspire sharp philosophical disagreement. But there’s one point where those who differ on whether they should exist at all often can often find some common ground. If you’re going to offer incentives, don’t just make them available to larger firms being recruited for relocation. Spread the sweetener so that it trickles down to smaller existing business who are already here in the county, employing Rowan workers and paying taxes locally.

The county’s incentives policy was among the items of discussion Tuesday afternoon when a task force from the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce met with the Board of Commissioners for a free-ranging discussion on a variety of economic-development topics. Members of the chamber said they appreciated the existing incentives policy and pointed to Toyota Racing Development’s move to the county as an example of the policy’s effectiveness. But Chamber President Bob Wright raised the possibility of “tweaking” the guidelines so to set a lower threshold for qualifying companies. That could make the incentives policy more accessible to smaller local firms with expansion plans, for instance, as well as making Rowan more attractive to smaller firms considering relocation from nearby counties.

Commission Chairman Arnold Chamberlain acknowledged that he and his colleagues don’t all see eye-to-eye on the incentives issue. Approval of the Toyota package came on a split vote, with Commissioners Jim Sides and Tina Hall voting against it. But Chamberlain noted that while the board members might disagree philosophically on incentives or their use in particular cases, they could “agree on trying to help local businesses.” He promised that the incentives policy would get a thorough airing at the commission’s upcoming annual retreat.

Commissioner Jon Barber noted that help for local businesses might not necessarily be limited to conventional incentives, such as tax breaks, but the existing policy might be changed to make grants or low-interest loans more readily available to smaller businesses.

Tuesday’s meeting also touched on other elements essential for economic development, including the Rowan County airport — sometimes overlooked but, as the chamber’s John Casey noted, a “critical issue” when corporations like Toyota (and Food Lion) require facilities capable of handling their jets. And incentives aren’t much help if you don’t have a viable workforce and training facilities available — or a modern freeway unfettered by construction bottlenecks. Hall noted that when companies list their No. 1 priority for locating in an area, it’s access to a major highway.

Because of the controversy that incentives generate, particularly in light of revelations about Google’s negotiations with Caldwell County, they tend to get too much attention relative to core issues involving roads, airports, water and sewer service and available land. Officials are wisely concentrating on those other areas as they consider fine-tuning the incentives policy.