Wilkes County’s placement among the state’s 40 most economically distressed counties in an N.C. Department of Commerce report released last week should give the county commissioners added incentive for helping with the purchase of a large tract in Wilkesboro for economic development.

Wilkes Economic Development Corp. representatives have met with the commissioners behind closed doors multiple times recently in their quest for this investment in the county’s future. (Under state law, this is a legitimate reason for a closed session of a public body.)

The commissioners have been hesitant thus far and  shouldn’t be faulted for being fiscally conservative, but a lack of “pad-ready” (build-ready) sites in desirable locations leaves Wilkes in a competitive disadvantage. Our competitiveness is also hampered by too few available buildings with desirable square footage and ceiling height.

There is public support in Wilkes for action to move the economic dial forward.

Being among the 40 most economically distressed counties (called “Tier 1”) means Wilkes County is now eligible for the state’s most lucrative economic investment incentives for companies considering where to expand and add jobs and to local governments and entities like the EDC competing for them. This will add a competitive edge to efforts to produce economic growth in Wilkes,  including when marketing the property the EDC wants to acquire and then use to create jobs and tax base growth.

As a Tier 1 county, Wilkes is now eligible for the most aid available under the One North Carolina Fund and building reuse, water and sewer infrastructure, Main Street downtown revitalization and Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) programs.

Companies in certain sectors are eligible for the greatest state income or franchise tax credits for creating new jobs in Tier 1 counties. Employers engaged in manufacturing, motorsports, aircraft maintenance and repair, air courier services, warehousing, customer service call centers, research and development, electronic shopping and mail order houses and IT are among those eligible for these tax credits.

A county’s tier is determined by data in four categories: average monthly unemployment rate, median household income, percentage growth in population and adjusted property tax base per capita.

It’s notable that even though Wilkes County’s ranking in each of these four improved from the 2018-19 report to the 2019-20 report released last week, the county’s overall economic distress ranking among the 100 counties worsened from 50th in 2018-19 to 34th in 2019-20.

This indicates economic conditions improved in Wilkes, but not as much as in many other counties. The much-needed elimination of certain tier ranking adjustors under legislation approved in 2018, effective with the 2018-19 rankings, was a factor.

One adjustor was that counties with populations less than 50,000 and with poverty rates averaging at least 19% in the five preceding years were automatically in Tier 1. Counties with populations less than 12,000 also automatically were in Tier 1. An adjustor requiring that a county be in Tier 1 at least two years after it qualified was ended.

Elimination of these adjustors resulted in several counties, including Alleghany, being shifted from Tier 1 to 2. No longer having to be in Tier 1 at least two years once placed in this tier allowed Surry County to go from Tier 2 in 2017-18 to Tier 1 in 2018-19, and back to Tier 2 in 2019-20.

There are three tiers, with Tier 3 being the least distressed.

Among the state’s 100 counties, Wilkes County was ranked 47th in 2018, 35th in 2017, 33rd in 2016, 31st in 2015 and 29th in 2014 in level of economic distress.

Wilkes went from Tier 2 to Tier 1 in 2009 and remained in Tier 1 until it became a Tier 2 county in 2014. Wilkes was in Tier 2 until it was moved to Tier 1 for 2019-20.

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