Committee of local leaders proposes strategy to help Siler City rebuild

Town’s low ‘Esri index’ signals economic weaknesses

Posted 3/2/21

The group hopes to redirect Siler City’s economic trajectory and reestablish the town as a leading destination in Chatham County.

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Committee of local leaders proposes strategy to help Siler City rebuild

Town’s low ‘Esri index’ signals economic weaknesses

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Posted

SILER CITY — An 11-person committee of local leaders has finalized its investigation into Siler City’s economic obstructions and will propose a development strategy to the town’s board of commissioners.

The group hopes to redirect Siler City’s economic trajectory and reestablish the town as a leading destination in Chatham County.

The Siler City Economic Development Strategic Five-year Plan Steering Committee includes members such as Siler City Commissioner Lewis Fadely, Economic Development Corporation Project Manager Sam Rauf and Chatham Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) megasite owner Tim Booras. Advisors are Ann Bass and Bruce Naegelen, economic developers from the North Carolina Main Street & Rural Planning Center; MS&RP is a subset of the N.C. Dept. of Commerce. Town Planner Jack Meadows presides over the group’s meetings.

The group has met remotely for the last several months after a brief hiatus following the pandemic’s onset. Its original goal was to evaluate Siler City’s economic needs and develop a short-term plan of corrective action, but was revised to include plans for “coming out of the pandemic” with a stronger local economy and better poised for long-term growth and development, according to Bass.

“(We looked) at a lot of data on the general structure of the economy,” she said, “with the idea that we were looking toward building back in a more resilient kind of way.”

Resilience, Bass said, means the town will not suffer critical setbacks when future economic disruptions strike. And when they do come, the town “would recover more quickly” than it has in the past.

But hedging Siler City against future economic dips is only the first step in a more comprehensive plan for town improvement. Committee members hope to establish Siler City as a leading destination in Chatham County for new residents and prospective businesses.

To do that, town leaders — including Meadows, the Siler City board of commissioners and Town Manager Roy Lynch — along with local groups such as the EDC, must find ways to incentivize new commerce and address “retail leakage.”

Retail leakage is “a statistical tool to help understand the retail dynamics in a certain geography,” an MS&RP report says. It “identifies gaps in the retail market where demand for retail goods and services in a specific category is not being satisfied by the existing retail businesses in that geography.”

As a result, Siler City residents are forced to spend their money elsewhere, outside the town and the county, propagating a cycle of local economic decline.

“It gives an idea of how much money we’re losing by people going somewhere else to purchase a good or service or whatever,” Bass said. “That then helps us to identify some opportunities for some new businesses or business expansions.”

The problem has worsened in recent years, especially as more residents leave town for employment.

In 2017, Siler City residents spent about $80 million outside of town on retail goods plus food and drink; those numbers have risen incrementally since.

“What I noticed is that there was sort of an increase in leakage over the past two or three years,” Naegelen said in a previous committee meeting. Last year’s figures showed a retail gap in excess of $81 million.

That money is spent beyond Siler City’s borders is not the only reason for the town’s economic doldrums. Its residents don’t have much money to spend compared to their neighbors in eastern Chatham County.

According to the Esri wealth index, Bass’ “new favorite statistic,” Siler City rates poorly next to surrounding micro-economies. The metric “captures both income and the accumulation of substantial wealth or the abundance of possessions and resources in its identification of the wealthiest areas in the country,” according to a MS&RP report.

“It gives an idea of where the community fares,” Bass said.

Average wealth nationwide is represented on the Esri index as a 100; bigger numbers suggest greater-than-normal wealth and lower numbers indicate degrees of poverty.

Siler City was scored a 68.

“We all know about our poverty rates,” Bass said, “so there is definitely some work to be done on increasing the wealth of the individuals, and, of course, we know that when a family has enough money to be able to meet their basic needs in times of disruption, that makes it a lot easier for them to weather the storm, which means there aren’t strains on the rest of the system as well.”

To many members of the committee, Siler City’s poor showing on the Esri wealth index compared to other county locations proves what they’ve already known for years — Chatham has severe economic disparity and should not be evaluated as a single unit.

Taken as a whole, Chatham County gets about a 103 on the Esri index, Bass said. The number is skewed by pockets of above-average wealth in the county’s western communities, and therefore misrepresents the fiscal standing of Chatham’s many low-income towns.

For years, a variety of circumstances have prevented Siler City from enhancing its attraction to developers and business owners even while eastern Chatham, notably Pittsboro and northern communities that abut Orange county, have flourished. In part, Siler City leaders have struggled to secure funding and support for revitalization measures because of North Carolina’s Tier system, which evaluates counties’ aggregate economic metrics without much regard for intra-county economic differences.

Calls to change the system have gone mostly unheard, but now, MS&RP’s investigation proves that N.C.’s Tier system hurts towns like Siler City and should be amended or abandoned, according to committee members such as Booras.

“We’re going to use this report to try to change the Tier system,” he said.

First, the committee must solicit commissioner approval, something it hopes to do this month. But Naegelen was pleased to hear of the group’s ambitious plans.

“Don’t think small,” he said. “Think big — even if you don’t make it to that mark, you’re going to get a larger result anyway.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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David Poe

The headline touts a "proposed strategy". No strategy is mentioned in the article other than changing the Tier system. We've known this is a problem for years. Where's the strategy?

Monday, March 8