Director of Planning and Community Development
Town of Siler City, N.C.
Phone: (919) 742-2323
How long have you been involved in the Rural Center’s pilot program to grow and develop small businesses?
We’ve been partners with the Rural Center since 2010. We were an NC STEP town – it was a program that the Rural Center used to work with local communities to help develop a local economic development plan. That was a successful program. It ran for about three years. The Rural Center obtained additional funding from USDA and started this pilot program called STEP for Small Business. Of the towns that had been in the step process, which were approximately 50, I think, at the time, a few towns were selected to be in the STEP for Small Business program. We created a local e-team that meets regularly and works to provide resources, and of course we’ve got the bonus $100,000 revolving loan fund to help businesses grow and prosper.
Do you think small business is really important to small towns?
It most definitely is. The town is— obviously, when we focus on the downtown, it mostly is small businesses. Small businesses are prominently what makes up a town. There may be a few large companies in a community but— like in our community, we did some tallying. You’ve got hundreds of businesses, and I would say 80-90 percent of them are small businesses. They are a big aspect of your local economy.
Have you faced a downturn where the big manufacturing industries left?
Yes, we have. I would say the impact in Siler City has been as significant as others. Obviously with manufacturing beginning to leave in the ‘90s before I arrived in Siler City, a lot of that had already begun. Then we had some large manufacturing companies that were located in Siler City that left that weren’t related to the manufacturing exodus such as textiles and furniture—they were food processing. We lost two large employers back around the late 2000s, 2010, where we saw somewhere around the tune of 1,500 employees left. Millions of gallons of water, a resource that the town provided to those companies, which was a revenue source for our water utility, we lost that in the late 2000s.
What’s the most important thing you’ve done to turn it around?
There’s a lot of stuff. One thing we’re focused on a lot today is looking at our regulations. I’m the planning director, so I wear two hats, being current planning and community economic development. But one thing as a planner I’m able to do is work with our local planning board to look at our ordinances. Some of our ordinances are dated, and what I mean by dated is, there was a time, a period in the early ‘90s when new ordinances were being adopted. Those ordinances were great at that time.
But what’s happened over the last 10 or 15 years is the regulations have begun to change and soften up in a lot of communities, providing some more flexibility for businesses, and our regulations weren’t set up for that. So we’re looking at other ordinances to create that flexibility and be like our surrounding communities.
If we’re requiring a local restaurant that’s going to open up to have 50 parking spaces, and our neighboring communities are only requiring 30, our regulations are a little stiff and it’s going to make it a little more difficult paving parking spaces. Each parking space costs extra money and we’d like to see them reinvest their money in their business and in the growth of their business rather than paving parking spaces that are not used and not needed. That’s just an example.
If a town is small and can only afford a planning person or an economic development person, which one is more important?
That’s a hard question. I would say for safety and order, planning is very important, and economic development is a bonus. But from my perspective, I think now with our current regulations and as we move forward, we’ve focused on safety first. That’s always going be a strong part of my department or the department I work with—is providing safe growth, safe design, so that their customers can arrive there and leave safely. I would say planning, but I wouldn’t want to be in that situation where I’d have to choose. You do need both.
What do you wish small town mayors or town managers knew that they don’t know?
When I hear that question, I think about the great communication I have with our town manager. He knows what we’re working on and who we’re working with and keeping him well-informed, which then we get to pass that on to our board of commissioners and mayor. We keep them informed. If we do a good job of informing them, then we can help them make good informed decisions moving forward.
So if you were giving advice to a town manager or mayor, you might say communicate with your staff, right?
That’s correct. Hopefully, staff understands the concerns of the public. They’re the ones that are working with the applicants and the public on projects. When they run into issues, one way we deal with it, is we take those to the planning board as a discussion item and invite that applicant to share that concern. Then we begin to look at other ordinances to see if there is something that we’re doing a little differently that we could do better.
If the planning board is in agreement, we begin amending our development ordinances to help them move forward, and that’s been well received. We’ve been doing that for about four or five years now and it’s very successful. Businesses quickly see that the government’s there to help, rather than put up a roadblock or hinder.
What is the importance of having a planning board?
I think it’s a good idea, and the reason I do is…the opportunity to bring those concerns or what may be perceived as a roadblock for a business, taking it to a citizen board, getting some feedback from those folks before you just say no to a business owner is very valuable. Getting public input is very key. I would recommend that at the lowest level, no matter what the population is.