The $160,000 proposal is a part of the fiscal year 2015 budget under review by the Board of Supervisors. The department would support economic vitality efforts and the active recruitment of new businesses in the county.
Lettie Bien, Supervisor Brad Sheffield’s appointment to the Economic Development Authority, argued for the department’s establishment. David Shreve, a former economic history professor at the University of Virginia and current treasurer of ASAP, argued against the formation of the department.
“The sure-fire way to invite bad growth is to leave expansion at the hands of profiteers and speculators in a thoughtless, unrestrained, random process,” said Bien, who also is an attorney and retired army colonel.
“[The department] will not be an effective program,” Shreve said. “There is not a community around that has a proven positive record for using these incentives and generating long-term stable prosperity for its people.”
Shreve disagreed with how the department would accomplish its goals.
“The question is not whether government should get involved in an effort to secure economic activity —it has to,” he said.
“Is [government involvement] tantamount to recruiting target industries, offering generic tax breaks for businesses in general, or offering specialized tax breaks for certain classes of corporations?” Shreve continued.
Bien pointed to the Economic Vitality Action Plan – a study the Board of Supervisors adopted in 2010 – as a reason supporting the formation of the department and the recruitment of target industries.
“In the Economic Vitality Action Plan, the county recognizes that some sources of revenue are more efficient than others, therefore more worthy of solicitation,” Bien said.
Among the industries targeted in the plan are bioscience and medical devices, business and financial services and information technology.
“There is plenty the government does to promote growth,” Shreve said. “The danger [of establishing the Economic Development department] is that it adds fuel to the fire. It promotes the idea that we can find some magic company that diversifies our tax base so we gain.”
Shreve mentioned an ASAP study concluding that while high profit margin companies add to the tax base, they bring new people to the county who create more costs.
“We forget about the tax revenue we lose, the infrastructure deficits that we sweep under the rug … and the environmental degradation that we see,” Shreve said.
One audience member and ASAP member, Randy Salzman, suggested changing the name of the department.
“What if we changed the name from ‘economic development’ to ‘community development?’” Salzman asked. “It is a semantic name change to make it sound better.”
While Bien did not agree with the name change, she mentioned how the goals of the department are tied into the vision of the county and the influence of the elected officials.
“[This department] is about assessing where we are, growing what we have here, and be given guidance from our board,” Bien said. “There is so much [in Albemarle] that hasn’t been tapped.”