Local representatives from Warren County, Warrenton, the Lake Gaston Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the surrounding counties gathered at McGregor Hall in Henderson, N.C., on Feb. 20 for the Kerr-Tar Regional Council of Governments’ economic development summit.

The event featured several speakers from Warren, Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Person counties, which make up the Kerr-Tar region, and special guests in the fields of economics, entrepreneur philanthropy, community colleges, and government.

The first speaker, Dr. Michael Walden, a distinguished William Neal Reynolds professor and extension economist at N.C. State University, kicked off the event with an optimistic overview of the current economy and what that means for the region.

Walden was followed by the executive director of the Wilson Economic Development Council, Jennifer Lantz, and N.C. Economic Development representative from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Hillary Sherman.

Lantz talked about the effects of building a new industrial park in Wilson and why it is important to have the space ready for business to move in because of the pace of business today. A business could find an area less attractive if they have to wait for a space to be constructed, she said.

Sherman also spoke about the importance of an area being open for business, before the pair took questions from attendees.

Gauging from audience reactions, Thom Ruhe of NC IDEA was one of the most impactful speakers of the day. NC IDEA is a private grant foundation that acts as an entrepreneur stimulator, giving millions of dollars to different kinds of startups. Since 2006, NC IDEA has supported over 250 startups.

Warren County Econo-mic Development Director Stacy Woodhouse introduced Ruhe as someone who has been all over the world, but the coolest thing about it is that “he cares about people.”

An audience member asked Ruhe, “How can we attract more entrepreneurs to our area?” Ruhe’s reply was that the best thing for a county to do is to find its own Stacy Woodhouse.

Ruhe explained that Woodhouse has a long history of being an entrepreneur and brings an energy that acts as a catalyst for economic growth.

“Ruhe comes at it with a perspective that isn’t always talked about in the entrepreneurial world,” said Woodhouse. “He talks about how minorities have a harder time breaking into it and getting loans and other help. He boldly talks about that and isn’t afraid to bring up the elephant in the room.”

The third act of the program was a panel discussion that included Jenni Harris, executive director of business services, North Carolina Department of Commerce, Division of Workforce Solutions; Dr. Pamela Senegal, president of Piedmont Community College; Judy Bradsher, M. Ed., director, CTE Programs/and GEAR Up liaison at Person County Schools, and Rhonda High, customized training director at Halifax Community College.

The panel’s concept was about developing a strong workforce by creating a pipeline through the education system. Each speaker reinforced the importance to a strong local workforce that pairs with the needs of the local business communities.

The keynote speaker at the summit was Doug Griffiths, author of the book “13 Ways to Kill Your Community.”

Griffiths is a retired politician who now pursues his passion of helping communities and organizations grow. His book covers community downfalls like not engaging the youth and seniors in a community, not shopping local, and never trying new ideas.

Christina Wells, Lake Gaston Regional Chamber president and CEO, attended with other chamber representatives and was particularly energized by the summit.

“The Focus 2020 Regional Economic Development Summit was a magnificent gathering of community leaders in the Kerr-Tar region who came together in the hopes of sharing ideas, information, and resources to benefit their towns and counties,” said Wells. “The keynote speaker Doug Griffiths gave a dynamic presentation of his book ‘13 Ways to Kill Your Community,’ expounding on each point with relevant examples. I walked away feeling encouraged about the work that we are trying to accomplish collaboratively as a region around Lake Gaston. I also greatly appreciated a statement Doug made at the end of his speech, ‘Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those of us who are doing it.’”

Woodhouse said that he thought it was a very successful event.

“Diane Cox, the executive director of Kerr-Tar COG, put it together in very short order and had over 300 people sign up,” Woodhouse said.  “It ran smoothly despite a winter storm coming in, and I think it’s only going to get better for years to come. It was an amazing first go at a regional event.”