The Waynesboro economic development director’s side gig: Optics, impact?

waynesboro“Hey, Greg, we need some hangers, when you get a chance.” This was directed at Greg Hitchin, the economic development director for the City of Waynesboro.

Hitchin was at his side gig, at Kohl’s in Waynesboro, around 6 o’clock on a weeknight.

My wife and I were picking up an online order at customer service in the back of the store. Crystal had noticed him before I did.

“Chris, isn’t that …”

Yes, it was.

We got our order; presumably, he got the hangers; life went on.

Almost immediately, I’m thinking, what is the city paying him that he has to work a $10 or $12 an hour job after hours to make ends meet?

I’d get the answer a week later from a city official that I talked to about the optics of having the city economic development director fetching hangers at Kohl’s off hours: $89,052.

I was of the mindset after that conversation that perhaps Hitchin is underpaid, based on the market for similar positions in other localities, but my review of similar jobs in Virginia has a range of a low of $58,000 a year to a ceiling at around $169,000 a year, so $89,052 seems probably fair, for a mid-sized city like Waynesboro.

Some more research: according to the job-listing site Indeed.com, hourly pay for cashiers and related jobs at Kohl’s in Virginia ranges from $8 to $12 per hour.

Now, some quick math: and let’s give Hitchin the high end of that scale, $12 an hour, and assume he’s working 20 hours a week, which, please, God, he’d better not be, but anyway. You’re talking $240 a week, before taxes, $12,500 a year, roughly.

For a relatively modest $12,500 a year, then, Waynesboro’s economic development director has to have a side hustle to make ends meet.

I’m a taxpayer in Waynesboro, residential and business taxpayer, to fully disclose there. I’ve written extensively about my frustrations with the city’s lackluster efforts in economic development relative to the marketable space in our industrial park and the $3 million of property adjacent to the current industrial park that the city purchased in 2011.

Which is relevant when you look at our economics relative to the area and state averages. Based on the most recent figures from the Virginia Employment Commission, 36.3 percent of the jobs in the Waynesboro economy are in the food-service and retail sectors.

For comparison, Staunton, 10 miles to the west, is at 26.1 percent. Augusta County, surrounding us, is at 13.3 percent.

Statewide, the share of food-service and retail jobs of the overall economy is 19.8 percent.

Food-service and retail jobs pay about 60 percent of the median job, according to wage data from the VEC, which is probably why the average worker in Waynesboro brings home 65.4 percent of what the average worker statewide does statewide.

So, Chris, you’re thinking to yourself right now, what does this have to do with the city economic development director working a part-time job at Kohl’s?

How many ever hours he’s working at Kohl’s, those are hours he’s not working in the economic development office.

Now, nothing he’s doing there is counter to the city government employee manual, according to the official in city hall that I spoke with.

There would be an issue if Hitchin were working as a consultant for a development company, which, yeah, that makes sense, because you’d have to ask then, whose interests would he have most in mind in that kind of situation, if that development company were to come to have business to do with the city?

I was asked in this conversation, so, Chris, what if you’d have happened to have run into Greg at the bowling alley at 6 on a weeknight? Any issue there?

If he’s bowling, no. If he’s responsible for my shoes and my order of fries, maybe.

Or, what if he’s not at the bowling alley, but what if his second job has him bartending at Plaza Azteca, slinging margaritas?

There, we got a concession. The optics of having the economic development director working as a bartender aren’t good, and maybe, as well, yes, the optics for him working part time folding sweaters at Kohl’s, also not good.

The optics, no, not good. And not only are the optics not good, but it has to be the case that having your economic development guy working shifts at the Kohl’s puts a dent in his schedule for his day job with the city, right?

Economic development isn’t an 8-to-5, Monday-Friday job, at least I can’t imagine it to be. If a potential economic suitor needs you to come to the corporate headquarters in North Carolina or California or wherever, you need to be able to get in the car or get on the plane to go meet them, right?

If they’re going to be in town for a site visit, you need to be able to spend how many ever hours they need you available, during the day, at night, weekends, whenever.

And I’d bet these kinds of things don’t always come with a week or two of warning. If the phone rings, and somebody’s in town, and needs to meet today, do you want the guy responsible for making sure they’re taken care of to have to then call his shift manager at Kohl’s to find somebody else to take care of online orders and fetching hangers that evening?

Hitchin told me by email that his job at Kohl’s has not conflicted with his duties with the city, but from talking to folks around town, I’m told that there have been instances where he’s had to ask for help covering meetings and events that he’d normally be on scene for.

So, maybe we have an economic development director selling our city during office hours Monday-Friday, maybe he’s more flexible than I’m thinking is the case.

It is a certainty that the optics are horrible. I’d argue that the ED job is at worst the second most important job in the city government organization, and might even be more important than the city manager job, because, who is the point person for us in terms of our local economy again?

Yeah, our ED guy.

Our local economy has been struggling for 30 years now to make up for the loss of manufacturing jobs that for decades had made Waynesboro the economic engine of the Shenandoah Valley.

The retail and food-service jobs that have replaced those manufacturing jobs are not the kinds of jobs that families can rely on long-term. You want to know why Waynesboro has the rampant meth problem that has me reporting today about the latest massive city-wide drug bust? People here have lost hope that they have a future.

We need an economic development director who wakes up every morning and goes to sleep every night thinking about what we can do to get the kinds of jobs that people can raise families on.

And we don’t have that right now, and I’m trying to get at why.

I asked a city official if there had been any discussions at top levels about what might be able to be done to find a little extra money in the budget to pay Hitchin to the point that he wouldn’t need a second job.

To my astonishment, I was told, no.

We’re talking $10,000 to $12,000 here, and, now, look, I’m not the guy’s agent, so I don’t get a cut if he does get a raise.

As much as my review of what other ED directors are getting paid statewide tells me that there are some getting paid less, there are also some getting paid a lot more.

If I’m running the organization, then, I look at my guy having to work a part time job that takes his eyes off the prize for 10, 15, 20 hours a week, whatever, and I have to make a decision.

I either need to pay him more, so that he can focus on his job, which, as I’ve demonstrated, is a damn important job for the people of this community, or maybe I need to find somebody else who can make it on $89,052, and commit himself or herself 110 percent to bringing jobs and economic opportunity to Waynesboro.

Bottom line.

Column by Chris Graham

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