COVINGTON -- The Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce is requesting that Newton County and the city of Covington more than double its economic development budget.
Chamber President Hunter Hall requested at a Board of Commissioners budget meeting Monday night that the county up its portion of the budget to $250,000. Currently, both the county and city contribute a total of $241,000, equally split. The Chamber is asking for that total budget to be increased to $500,000, with an equal split between city and county.
Hall said the increase in funding would not be applied to salary increases or bonuses, but used strictly for operations and marketing Newton County. It would cover an administrative assistant position, a person who could handle requests from companies when Vice President of Economic Development Roger Harrison and Director of Business Retention and Recruitment Shannon Davis are out of the office on the job.
The budget breaks down this way:
Personnel - $215,000
Operating Expenses - $60,000
Economic Development website creation and annual maintenance - $50,000
Targeted industry trade shows - $50,000
Global commerce - $30,000
Existing industry - $35,000
Workforce development conference and materials - $40,000
Marketing material - $20,000
While Hall said he understands the increase in funding may be "a hard pill to swallow" given the county's budget constraints, it's an investment that will provide a return, he said.
"We are the only entity afforded the ability to play offense. You cannot grow the tax digest any other way than a successful Office of Economic Development and taking care of existing industry," he said.
Hall said the project count, including projects landed and those looking at Newton, has almost tripled in the last year. In 2009, there were eight projects; there were 10 in 2010 and 26 in 2011. Three of those 2011 projects landed and there were two expansions, resulting in the creation of 450 jobs and $35 million in capital investment. For 2012, so far there are 18 projects.
"Baxter is a great example of what we're talking about in terms of offense," he added, referring to the pharmaceutical giant's recent announcement that it will locate in Stanton Springs, bringing 1,500 jobs to the area and investing $1 billion. "That was a very specific rifle shot at an industry we wanted. It wasn't a shotgun approach where we said, 'Hey, our doors are open.'
Recruiting industry in a county with 12 percent unemployment isn't trouble, Hall said, but officials wanted a specific type of industry that demanded a specific skill set and paid higher-than-average wages.
Hall encouraged the board to grow the budget instead of balance the budget, adding that the constraints of the current budget -- rising health care costs, furlough days -- can be addressed through economic development.
"We have the ability, we are the arm, the extension of this body, to go out and fund that revenue and fund that budget," he said.
Hall said now is the time to strike, while the Baxter announcement is fresh.
"We have got to strike. We cannot pass up this opportunity. We don't know what low hanging fruit is out there, but we know our time frame is short ... We've got to strike while the curiosity is still in play," he said, noting that economic development staff will be attending trade shows and looking for every opportunity to market the Baxter announcement to attract more industry. He noted that surrounding counties are gearing up to take advantage of the Baxter announcement for marketing as well.
"It's not just that the iron is hot and we've got to strike. It's that everybody else is going to strike, too," he said.
Hall said after the meeting that he expects to make the proposal soon to city officials.
The BOC is set to vote on the budget at its June 19 meeting.