The first weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have been dominated by issues such as immigration, but officials in Surry hope he soon gets around to implementing his economic strategies that could bring jobs to county residents.
Based on interviews since Trump’s election, local economic-development experts believe the stage is now set for industrial and business growth — in terms of both tangible steps such as slashing taxes and regulations which he’s proposed and from a mental standpoint.
“I’ll be honest, I’m hopeful, and hope is a very powerful thing,” said Martin Collins, community development coordinator for the city of Mount Airy.
“I think it should be a positive, based on what I hear,” Surry Economic Development Partnership (EDP) President Todd Tucker, the county’s chief industrial recruiter, said of how Trump’s presidency will impact business.
“I hope he can do some of the things he talked about doing,” Tucker said, “and hopefully sooner than later.”
Tucker said during the EDP’s annual meeting on Feb. 17 that there already is some post-election movement signaling positive economic trends, such as more industrial prospects paying visits to Surry.
Dean Brown, the senior member of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners and a longtime member of the Economic Development Partnership Board of Directors, has no shortage of confidence about the future.
“I think he’s going to bring jobs back to our county,” Brown said of Trump. “He says he’s going to do it, and I believe he will.”
The departure of local jobs to other countries is well documented.
Nearly 9,500 private-sector jobs were lost in the county from about 2000 to 2012, accompanied by 42 plant closings, as textile/apparel, furniture and other positions were outsourced.
Collins said the low point came in 2013, after Surry’sofficial unemployment rate surged beyond 11 percent (which many believed was actually above 20 percent), and its labor force dipped to under 27,000.
Trump sparks hope
Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s talk of reversing or renegotiating controversial trade deals such as NAFTA which have cost American jobs was music to the ears of counties such as Surry.
So was his plan to cut the corporate tax rate from around 35 percent to the 15 percent level, along with eliminating unwieldy Environmental Protection Agency and other regulations said to be hampering industrial growth.
The tax cut alone could render huge benefits, in Collins’ view.
“It seems like a move in the right direction, because it would lower the cost of the products we would hope to sell to our trading partners,” he said, pointing out that the U.S. corporate tax rate of 35 percent is one of the highest in the world.
Tucker, the EDP president, said any time taxes and regulation can be lessened, it frees up money for companies to hire more employees and invest in equipment or operations.
Simply putting manufacturers and businesses in a good frame of mind should reap benefits in and of itself, he thinks, which has somewhat been manifested by a huge boost to the stock market since Trump’s election.
“Just a feeling that things may be getting better when the administration gets in and things heat up,” Tucker said of the dynamics that have been part of that thought process.
“Maybe it’s just the anticipated change — I guess there’s something psychological about it,” Collins said.
He added that steps eyed by Trump would help in another way.
“Any time you cut businesses’ taxes, it lowers goods’ and services’ costs — they pass all these on to the consumer,” he said. “Eventually that should lower prices.”
In turn, the enacting of Trump’s economic plans could provide more disposal income to consumers. “And we’ll spend more, which would be good for business.”
Collins says there also is room for improvement in U.S. trade through the tweaking of policies promised by Trump.
The city community development coordinator thinks there is “real opportunity” to bring jobs back from countries such as China, Germany, Japan and Mexico.
Trade is needed, Collins said. “But the trade must be fairer.”
Collins said it has been suggested that the tax cuts and other changes proposed by Trump could create 2.5 million jobs per year in the U.S.
“Which would go a long way to make America more vibrant and (provide) the sense that we’re winning again.”
Brown said he observed some immediate improvement on the economic front within the first week of Trump’s victory on Nov. 8.
“I can already see where some jobs have opened up since the election — local jobs,” he said of the office positions involved.
“They were waiting until the election was over,” Brown said of those making the positions available.
Such a waiting game is not unusual, according to Tucker. “Typically in a presidential election year, things move a little slower.
That contributed to 2016 being a lackluster period for local economic growth, which included the latter portion of the year when Tucker said he witnessed no “action” in terms of positive changes, only talk.
“But 2017 looks to be an exciting year for the Partnership and for the businesses in the county as a whole.”
Glory days gone?
Assuming Donald Trump can put America first again in manufacturing, it might not necessarily mean a return to the industrial heyday that Surry County enjoyed before most of its jobs went overseas.
“We’ve seen some instances of jobs coming back — they call it reshoring,” Tucker said while adding a word of caution concerning the outlook for Surry County.
“We may see some of that,” the EDP president said of jobs returning.
“But thousands of manufacturing jobs coming back to Mount Airy? I don’t think that is a realistic thing,” he remarked.
“Can we get some of the manufacturing jobs back? Yeah, I think we can do that.”
The public must take into account what has occurred with the shift from labor-intensive to automated processes in recent years, Tucker says.
“Manufacturing has fundamentally changed — they don’t need thousands of people to make things anymore.”
The nature of workers needed also has changed, Tucker said in mentioning that Surry now actually has a job glut of sorts.
“They’re still struggling to find all the workers that they need and all the skill levels they might need,” he said of local employers.
Collins says there is an infrastructure issue to consider, also, a shortage of available industrial buildings.
“We’ve kind of used up the best of what was left vacant,” he said, mentioning that the last new plant in Mount Airy, the Central States Manufacturing facility, was built in 2009.
“That’s what we really need,” Collins said of new buildings.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.