Published: May 08, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: May 08, 2012 07:10 PM
Chatham chose change
For years, Walmart flirted with putting a store in northern Chatham County. This year it committed to move forward. In part, you can thank or blame, depending on your point of view Brian Bock for that.Bock is the chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. He and two fellow Republicans ran on a pro-jobs platform in the last election and captured a majority of commissioner seats. Chatham, a county nearly two-thirds registered Democrat, had only one previous Republican commissioner since reconstruction.In a recent interview, Chairman Bock talked about that historic election, the changes Chatham is undergoing and their results, including the future Walmart.This was Brian Bocks first foray into elective politics, although he articulates his positions like a seasoned politician. That is to say, he is thoughtful and engaging, with a reasoned tone. But unlike many politicians, he speaks plainly without ambiguity. He holds very firm principles and is not shy about advocating for them.Bock and his colleagues decided to run because Chathams economy had stagnated. A three-member majority of the previous board was elected promising smart growth. In reality, Bock contends, they put the brakes completely on growth. As far as I was concerned, when you crossed the border into Chatham County there was a sign that said Closed for Business. Chatham had serious social problems, led by high unemployment and poverty. Bocks slate had a simple message: Are we jobs friendly, or are we not? It resonated with voters.They immediately set to work on providing work. County Commissioners, Bock understands, dont create jobs. But they can get in the way. Their job should be to regulate as necessary, but take down roadblocks.The first order of business was a new mindset. According to Bock, we changed the attitude in government to one of customer service. County staff now feels free to help someone get to where they want to go, rather than just say no. Second, they improved the approval process. The goal wasnt to change regulations, but make procedures more efficient and get rid of surprises. A pre-application meeting provides input from all departments, some decisions got pushed down to staff level to avoid elected official politics, advisory boards advise rather than approve, and new deadlines cut up to 18 months off the timetable. Business folks told us they dont mind regulations; they just want to know what they are, and they want to be able to follow them, Bock explained. Most important was to eliminate personal opinions of folks, which took out some of the arbitrary decision making that was going on.The new attitude and a transparency were important to Walmart. Chairman Bock personally answered questions on requirements. They never once wanted any kind of special treatment, they just wanted to make sure they knew where the regulations were. As important, they wanted to know they were going to be welcomed. Walmarts jobsWelcomed they are. Walmart brings 300 new jobs to a county rife with job seekers. But there are other benefits, as well. Bock makes it clear that we need retail businesses that will provide sales tax revenue. People in Chatham spend 64 cents of every dollar elsewhere. Our residents are going to spend their money, lets get them spending here. Thats a perfect place for it and its properly zoned. The location, on Orange Countys border, will also attract spending from other counties, a bonus Bock wouldnt mind at all. Sales tax revenue will start making Chatham taxes more balanced. We rely way too heavily on property tax, Bock complains. Weve got to fix that. You cant keep going back to property owners. You got to expand the base.Additionally, Walmart plans to integrate into the community. They offered to show how they will support some of our nonprofits and how they will work with other local sustainable businesses. Even Chathams small organic farmers may benefit. Walmart has a goal to source produce within six hours, explained Bock. The agricultural extension is helping the store look to buy from Chatham. Chatham voters chose change. The new Board acted on its promises and quickly produced results. Walmart is the most newsworthy example of a string of economic successes, which have already exceeded most of Chathams economic development goals for the entire year. Brian Bock knows Chatham still has a long way to go, but is confident in its future as long as government continues facilitating instead of frustrating. Chathams neighbors may want to take notice, and take some notes, as well.