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One Mayor's Recipe for Success: Sound Planning and a Dash of Impatience 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

William Massengill acknowledges his impatience, and the Benson mayor has a simple explanation for it: In part, it’s a result of thinking about his children, and those of his fellow residents.

"I want to make things happen," said Massengill, a Benson native and medical center CEO entering his 10th year as mayor of the historically agricultural but growing town of about 3,500 people. "I’m kind of impatient if it doesn’t move."

He notes that his two children, both in their 20s, are roughly at the age of big, post-college choices.

"I want this to be a place where I think my children want to come back and live, if they choose to do that," Massengill said when asked why he sought out municipal leadership to begin with, particularly its highest seat. "If you want things to change, you have to be willing to sometimes step up and make it be different."

He added: "I think, if you’re in public service for the right reasons, what really appealed to me was that it wasn’t just about my children; it was about everyone else’s children. Are they going to have the same opportunities to come back to Benson, and want to be here? You start to look at it in a whole different sense."

It adds up to why Massengill, shortly after winning the mayor’s seat, drove for a tighter economic development plan. Along with fellow leaders, he wanted to give Benson some structure amid all the growth possibilities spilling over from nearby Raleigh and as North Carolina swelled toward the rank of ninth most populous state in the country.

"We didn’t have any strategic planning. We didn’t have any long-range plans. We just showed up at board meetings," Massengill explained of a decade ago. "And I knew from my own personal experience that that wasn’t going to get us where we needed to go."

He and fellow leaders tightly aligned the town with the local chamber of commerce, the county’s economic development director and a similar official at the public-power co-op of which Benson is a member. The goal was to string together a conversation from the local to statewide levels on how Benson could ready itself for the kind of business that may transform – responsibly – a small, rural town.

Fast forward to the time of this writing, Benson is about to see shovels break ground for a high-quality Hampton Inn expected to influence new development all around it. And – you guessed it – it wasn’t just an independent business decision on the part of the hoteliers to build there.

"When we saw the receptiveness of the town and how willing they were to work with us versus other larger localities where you get bogged down in the planning process and the approval process, that was something that weighed very heavily on our decision," Adam Leath, one of the hotel’s developers, told The Daily Record of Dunn. "It seemed it would be much easier to work with them because they’re very receptive to growth and intentional growth."

Easier. Receptive. Intentional -- acknowledged by a developer and reported in the media. That’s how it’s done.

Massengill, who sits on the League’s Risk Management Services Board of Trustees, said the town had prepared economic development boosters specifically for hotels (known to be a feasible and desirable recruitment for Benson) to let that sector know it was serious.

And what’s subsequently coming is a first-class, pet-friendly hotel positioned right off of Interstates 40 and 95 to make overnight guests of Northeast- and Florida-bound travelers – leaving money with the local economy.

A genius component on the part of the town’s government is its planned development of a dog park right next to the hotel. Massengill, during Southern City’s visit, pointed out the hotel and park locations on a giant sitemap hanging in the town commissioners’ chambers and gave Town Manager Matt Zapp the floor to explain.

"Those folks who travel, travel with their pets," Zapp noted. "If you’ve got a pet-friendly hotel, they’re going to travel 45 minutes greater, or stop 45 minutes earlier to have a pet-friendly hotel."

The dog park, while a great asset for Benson’s residents anyway, is an easy invitation to interstate travelers to stay in town a little longer – or even make the Benson hotel-visit a part of their planned itinerary.

That figured into the math that pushed the hotel proposal well beyond feasibility.

"What that does for us, just on a local level, is it takes our 2 percent hotel bed tax from $9,000 a year (in revenue) to $45,000 a year," Zapp said. "And that allows us to go and encase (that part of) I-95 and I-40 … as a tourism-driven, consumer-driven, traveler-driven oasis."

That calculates new demand for restaurants and other businesses that feed off the same source.

"So how did we end up with the potential for a sit-down, full-service restaurant? It started with a dog park," Zapp said.

It points right back to Massengill’s style and the doer culture inside Benson Town Hall.

But the mayor is also the first to remove himself from the marquis. He can’t talk about the hotel project without running out of fingers to count off the names of involved town officials, including the board of commissioners, and partner agencies like the N.C. Department of Transportation and ElectriCities, both of which worked with the town on the hotel project.

Now, the town is joining with N.C. State University to further sharpen Benson’s economic development plan. Never a moment for complacency.

"When you’re a small town, you really have to think about how you can maximize the resources that you have available to you," Massengill said. Referring to outside partners, he added: "I think we have to listen to what other people say – especially people who have other experiences."

This more worldly approach also has made the town stand out on the technology landscape, particularly among similar-sized peers. Benson recently was recognized by Government Technology magazine for its conversion of electric and water meters to a two-way "smart grid" system that gives customers much better utility data, affords the town better load management, helps decrease leaks and enables staffers to respond to power outages more quickly – all saving residents money.

Massengill noted that it can be challenging to adopt new technology that many peers haven’t used, but that he also saw it as an investment that could be crucial for better government and quality of life.

"In the month of November (alone), the town saved $17,000 on electric charges in what we pay for power, just because we had load management," Massengill noted. "In a low utilization month, $17,000."

That’s big money when scaled over a year and adjusting for high-usage months.

"It goes back into the economy," Massengill said.

On a stroll of the downtown business strip, the mayor ushered a Southern City writer into a candy-and-cakes shop run by Jenny Campbell, who has run the business there for 18 years but didn’t live in Benson’s corporate limits until recently. Without prodding, she happily noted the power bills in Benson were lower than at her previous residence. She also said her business has thrived in Benson, so much that she’s been pitched several times about moving it to a different, more populous locale.

Campbell said she always refuses; Benson has her heart. "I just like being here," she said.

That seems to be the bottom line for Massengill. This mayor champions intentional moves that will help locals today and make Benson a better place for its sons, daughters, new settlers and businesses tomorrow.

"There are strategic things that happen that will have long-term benefits, (such as) where you put water and sewer lines, infrastructure. This hotel (comes) at a very critical point for our town, and we knew that the quality of that development will certainly impact and color everything that’s around it for the next 20 years," Massengill said.

It’s difficult to overestimate how important that is. Economic development sometimes has the feel of a space race, a sprint to the ribbon of business recruitment, of being able to bring all growth and employment opportunities home for today’s residents because, of course, portals to prosperity are always in demand, right now.

But without proper steering, without a plan to recruit the right kind of business for an individual town, it’s easy to blow off course.

"We had people who said to me, ‘Why don’t you just let any kind of hotel come here? You’re trying to get this, but why don’t you just be happy with whatever might come here?’" Massengill related. "And my comment to them was … I knew that the community wanted better than that. And I think that’s one of the things about this town that, to me, is special. I believe that the people here want really good things. They don’t want to settle."