Last updated: December 26. 2013 11:13PM - 2542 Views
By - tjoyce@civitasmedia.com

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Surry will begin 2014 as a “Tier 1” county, a newly issued designation that ranks it among the most economically distressed areas in North Carolina.

However, a local economic-development official cautioned Thursday against reading too much into the recently updated rankings for all 100 of the state’s counties by the N.C. Department of Commerce.

“I wouldn’t, because we’re right on the cutoff line,” Surry Economic Development Partnership President Todd Tucker said, citing constant fluctuations that affect re-classifications of counties.

State law requires the tier rankings, including assigning Tier 1 status to the 40 counties that are the most economically distressed. There is also a Tier 2 category containing the next 40 counties on the scale that are doing better, with the top-20-performing counties given Tier 3 status.

The classifications are based on an analysis of a county’s unemployment rate, median household income, population growth and assessed property value per capita.

“Last year, we actually moved up from a Tier 1 county to a Tier 2 county,” Tucker said.

Surry, which had been a Tier 1 county in 2012 with a ranking of 36, went to No. 41 for 2013 to join counties in the middle of the tier program, and for 2014 it is tied for 40th place with Greene County — just missing the Tier 2 group.

“They had to have a cutoff point somewhere and we’re at it,” the local economic-development official said.

Changing economic conditions caused Surry to have the lower ranking. After experiencing improvement in the ratings criteria, two of the county’s factors showed little change this year while others fell, according to a Department of Commerce breakdown.

This included the county experiencing a drop in median household income from $36,622 to $35,269, lowering its rank for that particular factor from 66th to 73rd in the state.

Surry’s adjusted property tax base per capita also decreased from $73,738 to $70,503, moving it from 69th to 76th in the state.

Based on such variables, being a Tier 1 county is not something to be overly alarmed about, according to Tucker.

“In the next couple of years, I think we’re going to vacillate back and forth,” the Economic Development Partnership president said. He mentioned that since the state’s ranking system weighs each county’s situation against others, Surry’s standing could be diminished, even if it shows improvement in the ratings criteria, if other counties do even better.

“It has a lot to do not only with what’s occurring in Surry County, but in other counties.”

Tucker believes the county’s ranking won’t change appreciably unless a major industry comes in or some other upheaval occurs to drastically alter the economic climate. “We’re going to be fluctuating back and forth until we make some substantial long-term gains,” he said.

“Obviously, I’d like to see us remain in the Tier 2 status,” Tucker added, which would mean conditions are improving.

Blessing In Disguise?

North Carolina has used the three-tier system since 2007 to rank counties as to their economic well-being.

It is incorporated into various state programs, including tax credits, which are aimed at encouraging economic activity in less-prosperous areas. The rankings are a factor in the state’s performance-based economic development incentive programs, the One North Carolina fund and the Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program.

Tucker said in recent years, such “preferential” treatment has benefited counties such as Surry which have been hit hard by lost manufacturing jobs. That especially has been the case with aid from the North Carolina Rural Center, which has awarded building reuse and restoration grants to local projects that have allowed vacant industrial structures to be revamped by other companies creating jobs.

However, with the state Legislature cutting funding to the North Carolina Rural Center and moving its functions to the Department of Commerce, there are questions about whether lower-tier counties will continue to receive such benefits.

“As far as what it means to us, it’s hard to tell,” Tucker said of Surry’s latest designation as a Tier 1 county.

“We don’t know what that will mean for us for economic development.”

In all, 13 counties will change for 2014.

Along with Surry, Beaufort, Greene, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties will move from a Tier 2 to a Tier 1 ranking; Cherokee, McDowell, Wilkes and Yancey counties will move from Tier 1 to Tier 2 counties; Franklin and Haywood counties will shift from a Tier 3 to a Tier 2 ranking; and Guilford and Lincoln counties will go from Tier 2 to Tier 3 status.

Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or tjoyce@civitasmedia.com.

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