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Johnson Named NCEDA Developer of the Year

FOREST CITY — During the height of the recession, economic development took a backseat to economic survival.

But Rutherford County Economic Development Commission Director Tom Johnson continued his efforts, knowing the two go hand in hand, to attract industry to the county even in the face of near-20 percent unemployment and as businesses that had called Rutherford home for years shuttered their doors around him.

For his perseverance, which includes this past year’s deal to bring a 300,000 square-foot Facebook data center to the county, Johnson was named N.C. Economic Developers Association Developer of the Year at the group’s annual meeting earlier this week in Asheville. Johnson, who took over the local commission in 2006, received the award Wednesday.

“I’m still kind of overwhelmed,” Johnson said. “In my profession, it’s a once a year thing.... It is quite an honor.”

A local campaign started behind the scenes in Johnson’s office by co-workers Brenda Watson and Mary Taylor. In total, 18 letters were written to the NCEDA on Johnson’s behalf.

“Economic development for Tom is more than a profession,” wrote Scott Hamilton, chief executive officer of Advantage West. “It is his passion.”

Johnson began his career in economic development in 1987 in nearby Burke County where he helped bring companies such as Caterpillar, BASF and ITT Automotive into the area. 

After a two-year stint in Greeneville, Tenn., as president of the Greene County Partnership that began in 2004, Johnson found himself longing to return to the field of economic development.

“I spent half my time raising money and the other half doing talks and personnel matters, but I just wanted to do economic development,” said Johnson of his time in Greeneville. “I didn’t want to be an administrator.”

The opening here seemed like a perfect fit. Rutherfordton was already struggling when Johnson arrived. The textile mills had closed and like so many mill towns across the South, Forest City, Spindale and other local towns were struggling to reinvent themselves.

“When I came here, like today, we had very high unemployment and we were able to make some dents in that, and bring that down,” Johnson said. “In the fall of 2008, things just started happening and there was a big snowball effect.”

The MAKO boats factory closed as did All-American Homes. Steve & Barry’s clothing store, which employed about 100 people, also closed.

“The companies that didn’t close had layoffs in 2008 and 2009,” said Johnson, who watched the county’s unemployment rate rise once again to nearly 20 percent. As of May, it sat at 13.8 percent.

This past year, Johnson and his staff have brought CMI Enterprises, a fabric manufacturer for vehicles, to Ellenboro, and landed the Facebook data center.

Johnson said no two deals are alike when it comes to courting and landing potential industry, but they do have one thing in common: They are all tough to close, particularly in today’s competitive market. Johnson said he has heard statistics that reflect some 5,000 economic-development agencies such as his attempt to woo about 300 quality projects per year.

“We probably have just as much or maybe more activity than we’ve ever had, it’s just difficult to get deals closed,” Johnson said. “There are difficulties with financing and several things that companies experience, just like individuals do.

“Every deal is different. You can’t say there’s one thing. One of the first things we try to do is identify is what is that guy looking for — what are his hot buttons? Is it property? We have some companies come in that are purely site driven or purely building driven. Is it education? Is it a community having an airport? Usually, it’s not one thing, it’s several things, and if you’re void in any one of those areas it can get you eliminated.”

The key is to stay alive in what often becomes a long, tedious process — to stay in the game, he said.

The Facebook project, for instance, took nine months to close and often included late-night phone calls and early morning scrambles to answer questions and get the company’s project managers information they needed to go forward.

“During one stretch as we came down to it, every night I would have something to do in regards to the project,” Johnson said. “I always made it a point to have an answer waiting on them when they got into their (Palo Alto, Calif.) offices the next morning.”

It worked. Some 350 contractors are working now on the 18-month project to build the data center, which will permanently employ as many as 45 contract workers after its completion.

The construction project alone has provided a boon to the local economy, Johnson said.

“There are people out there working right now who may not have jobs at all and certainly wouldn’t have them here if not for this project,” he said.

Johnson’s passion and dedication for the job are among the things his supporters for the award said separated him from the other candidates.

“In my opinion, Tom’s success as an economic developer is a direct result of his honesty and integrity,” said George Sherrill, finance officer with the N.C. Department of Commerce. “He always plays by the rules and strives to do the right thing for Rutherford County.”

Johnson’s own employment contract with Rutherford County has come under the scrutiny of the County Commission as it considers the 2011-12 fiscal budget, but he said no issues concerning the contract have been addressed with him by members of the commission.

“I think the commissioners want to see some changes made in my contract,” Johnson said. “We’ll just have to see how that works out,” Johnson said. “No one has identified what those changes are that they want to see, so I don’t know. . . . I really can’t react, because I don’t know what to react to.”

Read more: The Digital Courier - Johnson named NCEDA Developer of the Year