Examine the message, don’t shoot the messenger

Recently a bit of a storm blew up over some comments made by Economic Development Partnership President Todd Tucker.

He was speaking with the Surry County Board of Commissioners regarding economic recruitment efforts for the county, and the strategy his office has taken in primarily targeting companies that can offer between 20 and 50 jobs. Everyone likes the idea of landing a 400-job firm, but Tucker told the board the reality is that Surry County simply isn’t in the running for those for various reasons.

One big obstacle, he said, is a lack of available buildings. He told the commissioners the majority of these larger firms want existing, modern shell buildings of at least 100,000 square feet, facilities where they can be up and running quickly. Surry County simply doesn’t have any of those, and firms aren’t going to wait 12 to 18 months for land grading and construction.

The comment that created the firestorm, however, was something he said about the Surry County workforce.

“Most people can’t pass the three tests. … Those are the drug test, the felony test and the show-up-to-work-three-days-in-a-row test.”

A number of area residents have commented on this, both at mtairynews.com and on Facebook, and others have made their private feelings about Tucker’s statement known elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, most people have lashed out at Tucker, criticizing his comments, questioning if he really can market Surry County if that’s what he believes, some even calling for his job.

This seems a little bit like shooting the doctor who tells you that you have cancer, then leaving her office, patting yourself on the back because you’ve solved the problem.

Tucker’s comments were strong, and they are concerning, but we urge everyone to step back and take a hard look at what he said and the circumstance in which he said it.

As the head of the Economic Development Partnership, part of his job is to lead industry and business recruiting efforts for Surry County and the other members of the partnership, and to advise locally elected officials on what obstacles he is encountering and what he believes the county and municipalities within Surry County can do to be more successful.

When he made that statement, he was honestly answering questions posed to him by the county board of commissioners. Do we really want an economic development chief who isn’t going to be honest, who is going to say what everyone wants to hear rather than discussing the matter forthrightly?

We also think it’s noteworthy to remember Tucker is not the first person to say this. Not too long ago Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson said he was having a difficult time filling vacancies on the police force for the same reason — plenty of applicants, but few who could pass muster.

Granted, the bar might be a little higher for police officer posts than for most jobs, but Watson specifically cited a couple of basics: drug screenings and background checks.

Local business leaders and industry executives will often say the same thing, though privately and without attribution because they fear the public backlash of such statements. Fact is, we suspect Tucker was telling the commissioners what he is hearing from local industry leaders when he made the statement.

Don’t misunderstand. Surry County is a wonderful community, with some of the best people you’ll find anywhere. The hospitality local folks extend to one another and to visitors is well-known (mention to anyone across the state Mount Airy or Surry County, and that’s one of the first things you hear). And the manner in which local individuals and businesses rise up to meet challenges and to take care of their neighbors is second to none.

But when the leader of the county’s economic development efforts makes a statement like that, in the context in which he said it, maybe we should be examining the message, and the underlying reasons behind it, instead of shooting the messenger.

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