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County approves incentives after deal announced

by Jordan Green

Following an intensive lobbying effort by elected officials from High Point, the Guilford County Commission approved a corporate incentives outlay worth up to $650,000 to Delaware-based Ralph Lauren Media more than three weeks after Gov. Mike Easley announced that the company would open a customer service center, manufacturing center and warehouse in the city.

Part of the pitch to the commission was social improvement and part was desperate maneuvering to save a deal.

High Point Mayor Pro Tem Bernita Sims told the commission at its Nov. 16 meeting that the jobs created by the new facility, which will pay an average salary of $34,000 when Ralph Lauren Media’s Polo.com goes into production on Kivett Drive, will boost her constituents in Ward 1, which is 71 percent black and has “been impacted by the loss of textile manufacturing.”

Mayor Rebecca Smothers told the commission: “I do not believe Polo.com will choose Guilford County without this total incentive package.”

The High Point City Council approved its share of $1.4 million in tax rebates on Nov. 9. The state of North Carolina announced $1.5 million in incentives on Oct. 26. The county’s commitment amounts to less than a fifth of the total package.

Several of the commissioners expressed skepticism about whether the county’s contribution would affect the company’s decision to locate in High Point given that the announcement had already been made.

“I’ll assure you that $650,000 was in our process,” said Ralph Ware, a senior director of operations for the company. “There were a lot of other sites that were very, very close in location and very competitive. It came down to a financial decision and the $650,000 is part of that. Without it we’re going to have to go back and rethink our decision.”

Commissioner Bruce Davis, a Democrat whose district encompasses the new Polo.com site, made an impassioned plea to his fellow commissioners.

“They’re gonna sew the pony on right here,” he said. “People are sewing ponies on things in Indonesia for 33 cents a day. They could easily go somewhere else, and we should welcome this opportunity.”

Rep. Laura Wiley, a Republican who represents High Point in the NC House, drove from Raleigh to lobby the commission.

“When it comes to corporate incentives none of us like ’em, but that is often the way we work now,” she said. “We need to be very careful. I know what I look for. I look for a record of success’…. I want to know that this company is going to pay back within a reasonable amount of time. I believe that figure is three years.”

Democratic Commissioner Paul Gibson voiced objection to the deal.

“I have a philosophical difference with some jobs being more important than some others,” he said. “Small business generates most of the jobs and they do not and will never qualify for these incentives.”

Skip Alston, a Democrat, openly called the company’s bluff and then offered a favor.

“If I was a betting man – and I’ve been known to go to Atlantic City -‘ I would bet that if we voted against it they would still come. An incentive is something that persuades you to do something you otherwise wouldn’t do. Anything else is a gift. Tonight I will be giving Polo a gift. I like your idea of fair hiring practices.”

He said Davis had twisted his arm and then described his vote as an “early Christmas gift” to colleagues “Bruce Davis and Bernita Sims to build up their districts.”

The incentives grant easily passed with the support of eight commissioners. The three dissenting votes came from Gibson, Republican Billy Yow and Republican Steve Arnold, who also represents High Point on the commission.

Afterwards the High Point delegation filed out of the meeting room, and the company representatives and city leaders congratulated themselves in the wide stairwell of the Old County Courthouse.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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