Our own President, Dan Gerlach, recently spoke on the importance of infrastructure as a building block for economic development at the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina’s conference entitled “Energizing Rural North Carolina: The Building Blocks of Successful Economic Development”. The following Q&A reflects that presentation.
1) What Exactly Is Infrastructure?
Well, one definition that I found online is the “basic structures and facilities needed for operation of a society or enterprise.” We look at it in terms of human infrastructure – building the knowledge, talent and skills of our people – and physical infrastructure – the actual stuff and facilities – that serve the needs of a community. Physical infrastructure was the topic of my talk.
2) Why Did You Speak on Infrastructure?
Good question, as it was one of the five building blocks that were the focus of the conference. The others were education, workforce development, health care and leadership, and Golden LEAF has provided grants and other support in all of these areas. The speakers that EDPNC had for those areas were all excellent, and I enjoyed learning from them
But Golden LEAF has funded 175 projects at a level of almost $130 million in physical infrastructure alone, and I think that level of funding as well as the breadth of our commitment, was what was of interest to the EDPNC staff and its Board.
3) What Do You Mean by “Breadth” of Commitment?
Golden LEAF is not a pure water and sewer funder, nor a pure road and highway funder. Rather, we’ve supported projects in those areas but also quite a bit in construction and renovation of education and workforce development facilities, as well as fast emerging areas such as broadband and areas not normally seen as infrastructure, such as health care facilities.
4) What does Golden LEAF consider when reviewing infrastructure grant proposals and how does Golden LEAF measure the success of funded projects?
The easiest proposals to find funding for are those where there’s a project that has clear job creation and private investment commitments and has options in other states/nations. If there’s a public need to make that project happen, we and other partners are right on it. We meet regularly with the NC Department of Commerce and EDPNC to address these deals in a timely and thorough fashion.
The tougher reality is that projects are often so fast moving that the sites need to be ready with infrastructure in place to attract attention. That means there’s more pressure to be speculative with grants and local sources before you actually know who the end customer(s) will be. We have taken steps in this direction with our Community-Based Grants and our Major Sites Development Initiatives.
I also would advise local governments not to ask the federal or state governments or Golden LEAF for support unless there is some level of local skin in the game.
5) What Are Some Successes?
I’d point to two investments we’ve made through our Major Sites Development Initiative at the Washburn Switch site in Cleveland County and the Kingsboro site in Edgecombe County. Both of those sites received substantial grants for infrastructure, had large amounts of local investment, and a clear definition of success in mind.
6) What Do Communities Have to Understand About New Realities?
First, communities have to develop a clear sense of how their infrastructure plans will contribute to business and economic development.
Second, we all have to recognize that while some infrastructure is public in nature, there is substantial and crucial infrastructure that is largely the province of the private sector – including broadband, natural gas, and electricity – with some exceptions. Public-private collaboration is more important than ever before.
Third, these investments will take patience – not of one of my personal strong suits. Edgecombe worked patiently on the Kingsboro site for years to get it to development. Many of our neighboring states have worked over the last decades to get sites ready, and we better stay on our game and take the long view.
About Golden LEAF President Dan Gerlach
Since October 2008, Dan Gerlach has served as president of the Golden LEAF Foundation. Dan has previously served as a legislative budget analyst, nonprofit policy director and senior advisor to the Governor. He has served on over a dozen commissions on budget, tax, agriculture and economic development at the state & national level. Dan formerly served on the NC Network of Grantmakers Board of Directors and is currently on the boards of the MyFutureNC Commission and the NC Early Childhood Foundation. He is also actively involved in his church.
Dan holds an M.P.A. in state and local public finance from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and bachelor’s degrees in economics and English from the University of Notre Dame. He has served as an adjunct instructor of public administration at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University.