To Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams, it’s simple: Wake County commissioners talk big about recruiting and retaining jobs, but they don’t follow through — at least not for his town. In January, the county refused to contribute $450,000 to an incentives package Garner officials were assembling to keep Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods Inc. from leaving.
The company hasn’t actually said it plans to, but Williams still worries. A natural-gas explosion in June killed four workers and collapsed part of the roof of the Slim Jim plant, cutting its production of the meat snacks by about half. In November, ConAgra laid off 300 of the 750 local workers and shifted production to other plants. Many in town fear that was a precursor to a shutdown.
“We thought in an effort to entice ConAgra to make the right decision to stay in Garner that we’d have a three-pronged offer — the town, the state and the county,” Williams says. “But we only have two of those parties at the table. It’s not the way I expected it to go.” He says the state pitched in a $450,000 grant, which the town matched with tax breaks. The package also might include state tax breaks. ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs says the company has no timetable for making a decision about the Garner plant. “The incentives will play a role.”
ConAgra doesn’t meet requirements of the county’s incentives policy, says Ken Atkins, director of Wake County Economic Development. The town’s plan doesn’t require the company to add jobs or invest in the plant, just maintain employment at the current level for a yet-unspecified period. To qualify for county help, Atkins says, an existing company must have at least $75 million of property on the books and commit to a $50 million investment or more. It also must create at least 50 jobs that pay more than the county average wage.
Williams says Wake is missing the point. “The county is going to suffer the loss of jobs and taxes, too, if ConAgra leaves. It is supposed to be all about jobs. The No. 2 goal the county commissioners set last year was to recruit and retain jobs. What they did was a little bit contrary to that policy.”
Atkins understands the town’s frustration but adds, “The county has a policy, and commissioners have chosen to not amend or change it. I can’t tell you much more than that.”
The leader of the pack
After a bumpy year in which its chancellor resigned amid questions about the hiring of the then-governor’s wife, N.C. State University found his replacement in the flat lands of northern Indiana. William Randolph “Randy” Woodson, provost at Purdue University, will begin work by May 1 as chancellor of the state’s largest university, which has nearly 34,000 students. Woodson, 52, will make $420,000 a year when he takes over from James Woodward, interim chancellor since James Oblinger’s resignation in June. An Arkansas native and researcher specializing in plant science, Woodson joined the Purdue faculty in 1985 after a stint at Louisiana State University. He became provost less than two years ago, overseeing all academic programs on the main campus and four regional campuses.