The act of governments offering economic incentives to recruit new businesses to town is always a tricky thing.  Everyone supports the jobs, the extra tax base, the new people in town and other benefits a blue chip company brings to the table.  And yet, offering cash, land, property tax relief or other inducements can appear unseemly when the client is a highly profitable business perfectly able to pay its own way.

Eight years ago, the Board of Commissioners and Southern Pines Town Council chipped in on a deal to sway First Bank to relocate its headquarters from Troy to downtown Southern Pines. The incentives deal: Moore County agreed to pay $15,000 a year for 10 years, while Southern Pines put up $12,000 a year for 10 years to defray moving costs. Total public investment: $270,000.

The deal Moore County and Southern Pines made was a winner from the get-go. Rather than tear up land and construct a new building, the bank instead invested $2.65 million on an existing office building downtown at the corner of South Broad Street and Massachusetts Avenue, ensuring a large number of well-paid professionals would be able to patronize downtown restaurants and businesses — and the town wouldn’t have a large, vacant building at the edge of its important business district.

At the time it relocated here from Troy, First Bancorp, the parent company, had total assets of just over $3.2 billion and just under 100 branches in the Carolinas and Virginia.

With its purchase earlier this month of Dunn-based Select Bancorp, First Bank will soon have more than $9 billion in total assets and 124 branches. It is the fourth largest bank headquartered in North Carolina, after Bank of America, Truist — both based in Charlotte — and First Citizens Bank, based in Raleigh. From its Southern Pines base, the company now employs more than 1,000 full-time staff and serves 300,000 bank customers. And every time an earnings statement or some other news release goes out regarding First Bancorp, it includes the words “headquartered in Southern Pines.”

Incentives arrangements are never just about the economics of the deal. Communities spend to recruit businesses because of what a particular company says about that community. North Carolina is spending upward of $1 billion for a new Apple office operation in Research Triangle Park partially because of the “halo effect” of having such a massive global brand attached to the state.

In the case of First Bank, though, the company has provided us so much more than just a warm glow. Its employees are active community volunteers and participants in civic life, from the Chamber of Commerce to nonprofit boards. The bank regularly sponsors and contributes to causes and local projects, from the Public Education Foundation to the Sunrise Theater’s permanent outdoor pavilion that bears its name.

No one likes spending money on businesses that can stand on their own two feet. But occasionally opportunities arise to invest in bringing a company to town that, on balance, provides so much more to a community.

It might have been harder to see that eight years ago with First Bank. But time has proven that Moore County and Southern Pines have, indeed, parlayed a small investment into a very lucrative thing.

(Original Editorial published in The Pilot, 6/19/21)