By Tara Kenchen
President & CEO, N.C. Community Development Initiative
June 1, 2015 – Today was an important milestone for our network. John E. Skvarla III, North Carolina’s secretary of commerce, came to the Initiative’s office to speak with a group of more than 30 affordable housing and community development leaders from across the state. This marked the first time since the N.C. General Assembly stopped investing in our sector that the Initiative has hosted such an event with a member of the Governor’s cabinet.
The Department of Commerce is one of the most critical agencies in state government to our sector. It sets the tone for economic development in the state, it houses divisions that focus on rural development, community investment and workforce development, and it plays a key role in developing state policy related to these issues.
We have historically had a close and effective working relationship with the Department of Commerce and its leadership. Recently, however, this relationship has gotten much weaker. Today was an important step in reversing this trend and we now have much to build on as we move forward.
Billed as an informal conversation, the meeting quickly grew into a lively discussion about the range of tools needed to promote equitable growth throughout the state and, in particular, in economically distressed communities and communities of color. Perhaps Goler Community Development chairman Michael Suggs put it best when he observed, “we need specialized tools to make economic development work in our communities.”
The wisdom of this comment is that it recognizes that this is not an “either/or” discussion, but that it needs to be a “both/and” conversation. Secretary Skvarla opened the meeting by sharing his vision for creating jobs and economic growth in North Carolina. In that vision he called for our help in passing a legislative agenda that will give his department the tools it needs to recruit jobs and investment to North Carolina.
By and large, the department’s agenda is one we can support. In particular, the community economic development sector has been at the forefront of supporting the effort to restore the state’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit, and we also fully recognize the need to close the digital divide by making sure that rural communities have broadband access. These are key legislative priorities where we can and should work together.
At the same time, the gathering gave leaders from our sector the chance to express to Secretary Skvarla how important it is to have his department’s support for those specialized tools that have been proven to make a difference in the communities with which we work. These include restoring the North Carolina Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, bringing back flexibility to the Small Cities Communities Development Block Grant program, and finding innovative ways to effectively use targeted public investments to leverage private sector capital to finance affordable housing, entrepreneurship and community development activities in persistently poor communities in our state.
The meeting today also gave Secretary Skvarla the chance to listen to what community economic developers can build in communities when we have the right tools and resources. Moreover, I believe he heard us. And, as a result, we are already planning concrete steps that we can take together to follow up on this initial discussion.
The community development sector has much to bring to the table and one important job of the Initiative is to help facilitate and maintain the critical relationships needed to make sure that our sector has access to the resources and tools it needs to do its work.
The lines of communication with the commerce department are now open once again. Of course, we won’t always agree, but if the relationship is strong, we can work together and find the areas of common concern and opportunity. We look forward to working with Secretary Skvarla and his team to promote job growth and economic development in all of our state’s communities.