People - December 2006

To make bread, he kneads East to rise
By Chris Richter

Twenty years ago, Al Delia narrowed his job search to Eastern North Carolina or rural Hawaii. He was living in New Jersey, looking for a rustic place where he could put to use what he had learned during four years working with economic-development agencies.

He subscribed to newspapers in Honolulu and Raleigh. The first Tar Heel paper he got had an ad for an economic-development job in the Greenville office of the Raleigh-based Small Business and Technology Development Center. “I sent out one résumé with a 29-cent stamp and got the job,” Delia, 47, says. “It was a good return on investment.”

It’s still delivering. Delia stayed in North Carolina, mostly in the East, though he spent three years at the center’s Chapel Hill office as the organization’s associate state director. He returned to Greenville in 1993 to work as an associate vice chancellor for research and economic development and later as a lobbyist for East Carolina University. In August, he became president and CEO of North Carolina’s Eastern Region, one of the state’s seven economic-development partnerships. The Kinston nonprofit recruits industry for and promotes the 13-county region.

It’s a tough job. The region’s 6% unemployment rate in 2005 was the highest of the partnerships. Delia seeks growth in clusters such as advanced manufacturing, drugs and the military. “We can’t simply grab any company, regardless of the industry, and bring them in.” He also is changing the job-hunting focus from recruiting to promoting entrepreneurship and expansions.

Outside the office, he enjoys travel — a good thing considering his background. His father worked for a defense contractor. Delia was born in Libya and lived in Ethiopia, the Sudan and Egypt before his family moved to Washington, D.C., when he was 7. He attended an American high school in Rome before returning to the U.S. to attend Drew University in Madison, N.J. After earning a bachelor’s in political science in 1982, he worked two years for a community-redevelopment program in New Jersey and then started a nonprofit that helped small businesses find financing. But he didn’t want to start a family there, so he started the job search.

He’s glad to be back in economic development, replacing Tom Greenwood, who resigned in February. The region has had friends in Raleigh — Gov. Mike Easley is from Rocky Mount and former Gov. Jim Hunt is from Wilson — but power is shifting to more populous parts of the state. “We need to carry the day based on our ability to make our voices heard.”