A three-year plan for recruiting companies and people to Wilkes County and for helping businesses expand their existing presence here were outlined Thursday at the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. Annual Meeting at the Stone Center in North Wilkesboro.

The strategic plan was presented by Crystal Morphis of Elkin, founder and CEO of the Triad-based Creative Economic Development Consulting. Morphis worked with the Wilkes EDC staff and board and others in Wilkes, including by conducting a survey, to develop the plan.

Also during the meeting, Wilkes EDC President LeeAnn Nixon said the EDC Board voted Wednesday to move forward with local government toward buying a vacant piece of land the EDC already has an option to purchase.

Nixon and Terry Bumgarner, Wilkes EDC board chairman, didn’t wish to impact potential negotiations by identifying the site, but Bumgarner said the EDC will approach the Wilkes County commissioners about buying it to help promote economic development.

The possibility of constructing a spec shell building to help spur economic development has been discussed but wasn’t mentioned Thursday.

Nixon said the EDC board will use the strategic plan to develop a program of work.

One goal in the plan is developing sites and buildings to retain and recruit businesses. It lists creating a public-private spec building program, investigating the potential of developing a multi-jurisdictional industrial park and reviewing how other communities have supported mixed-use development among action steps toward his goal.

Strategies listed for the goal of existing business retention and expansion include identifying future space needs, integrating succession planning resources, organizing a business appreciation week and identifying leaders to serve as ambassadors.

Strategies for the goal of marketing Wilkes to recruit businesses and people (including visitors) include refining target industry sectors, leveraging regional and state partners in recruitment and making the EDC website a sales and marketing tool.

For the goal of small business and entrepreneurial growth, action steps include maintaining an inventory of available small business space/buildings, organizing a local group of “angel” investors, investigating to find companies that may have available space within buildings they occupy, developing a local resource tool kit for small businesses and working with the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce and Wilkes Community College Small Business Center to organize an “executive talks” series.

For the goal of attracting talent to Wilkes, action steps include reviewing Burke County’s “Work in Burke” and Cleveland County’s “Charlotte’s Backyard” initiatives as best practices. It also recommends adding “Live in Wilkes” and “Remote Workers” sections to the EDC website.

Action steps for the goal of building community capacity include completing a housing inventory and gaps analysis in partnership with Realtors and then promoting housing gaps to residential developers. It also lists seeking municipal support of extending infrastructure and roads for residential development within the towns.

Another action step is developing a summary report of how LEAP (Local Expansion and Attraction Program) funds have been spent and the results. Through the LEAP campaign, the EDC raised $750,000 in private donations several years ago. These funds are used for various economic development initiatives.

The plan recommends spending LEAP funds on real estate development and direct business assistance in years one to three of the plan.

It also recommends setting a goal and developing a strategy for raising private sector funding and initiating a fundraising campaign in year two. It recommends using operational funds, which are from local governments, to add staff and implement program initiatives.

It lists adding a third EDC staff person for marketing and research to support implementation of the strategic plan and developing a list of volunteers for EDC events.

Positives and negatives

The plan identified Wilkes County’s economic positives and negatives.

The county’s strengths listed are location, educational system, extensive broadband Internet coverage, Wilkes County Airport with sites for companies, land available for development elsewhere, four-lane U.S. 421 corridor and close proximity to Interstate 77 and costs of living and doing business in Wilkes.

First on the list of opportunities in Wilkes are capturing the traffic passing through Wilkes on U.S. 421 and improving the appearance of the U.S. 421 corridor. Next is making vacant sites ready for development and/or constructing a shell building.

Other opportunities listed are increasing efforts for business recruitment, availability of LEAP funds, improved partnerships with Realtors and developers, housing development and increased collaboration between local governments.

The weaknesses listed are workforce skill levels, availability of workers, lack of certain categories of housing, low inventory of existing industrial buildings, lack of land ready for construction at reasonable prices near water and sewer lines, lack of well-paying professional jobs and infrastructure challenges.

Threats listed are exceptionally low unemployment, opioid crisis, brain drain, low wages that make it hard to attract new workers and retain young workers, slow-growing population, having two dominant employers and future lack of public investment in education.

A report on EDC activities also was presented during the annual meeting.

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