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NC Environment Secretary To Take Helm At Commerce Dept. ‘He understands customer service’

Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker, Gov. Pat McCrory, and Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla
Jorge Valencia

There will be some key changes to Governor Pat McCory’s cabinet in the New Year. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker is stepping down. And Environment Secretary John Skvarla will be the new head of the commerce department. The two positions are central to the governor's plan to attract businesses to North Carolina.

The governor feels very passionately about the members of his cabinet, or as he prefers to call it: his team. Yesterday, he was in front of a crowd in the historic chambers of the Old Capitol building, and beside him was Sharon Decker.

“I'm sad to announce that she's resigning,” McCrory said, tears welling in his yes. “But she has left a legacy of jobs for North Carolina. And she's been the best salesman I've ever seen for this state, and she will be missed.”

Decker said she was stepping down to be closer to family and to become president of Nuray Media, a new company based in her hometown of Rutherfordton in Western for North Carolina. Her job for decades was with Duke Energy. As commerce secretary, she saw the state's unemployment rate drop by two percentage points. At the same time, many people on long-term unemployment stopped looking for jobs. So they're not counted anymore.

Business Recruitment Incentives

One of the biggest changes under her leadership was the creation of a public-private partnership. The plan is that the new non-profit will recruit jobs to the state. The state House and Senate set aside $17 million to run it. But Decker wanted another $20 million for grants to businesses.

"You know, you can have great ideas in the executive branch,” Decker said in an interview. “But you've got to have the funding to make that happen, and the legislation to support it, and there's some work that's got to be done in this next session."

Decker worked very closely with her successor, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla. Decker, Skvarla and Transportation Secretary Tony Tata say they were practically attached at the hip trying to attract businesses.

Business-Friendly Environment, Conservation Of Natural Resources

But for many advocates of the environment, that's been an issue under Skvarla. They say businesses have exploited the environment under his watch. Many say the state wasn’t aggressive enough when 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from a Duke Energy pond this year. Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College, says that being business friendly and environmentally safe is an especially delicate balance for a Republican governor.

“What you're seeing is a Republican trying to balance between the two,” Bitzer says. “To protect the environment, but also to help to develop job opportunities, job creation.”

That experience in trying to develop opportunities is perhaps the direct link between Skvarla's former job and his new one. The governor says Skvarla is a quick learner and he understands customer service. Skvarla, like Decker, has been in business for decades. And he says he’s just answering the call to a new job.

"The governor asked me to do it. He said he needed me to do it, and I'm part of the team," Skvarla said in an interview.

The question then is whom the governor will hire as his new Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, and where that person will stand on that balance of business recruitment and conservation.

The governor says he’ll be interviewing candidates soon, and he’ll make a decision by the end of December.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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