RALEIGH — Ken Atkins, the longtime head of Wake County’s economic development efforts who in recent years helped land major projects such as MetLife and Red Hat, is retiring.
Atkins, who turns 65 in February, has been executive director of Wake County Economic Development since 1997. He’s retiring at the end of December from the program, which is run by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and receives funding from both Wake County and the City of Raleigh. He also has a second title – senior vice president of economic development at the Chamber.
“Today is the 16th anniversary of my work with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce,” Atkins said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s been a good long run.”
Those who have worked with Atkins praise him as a born salesman who knows the ins and outs of recruiting businesses and whose enthusiasm about the region can be infectious.
“The proof is in the pudding,” said Harvey Schmitt, the chamber’s president. “We have had an outstanding amount of growth.”
Atkins said he is pleased to be going out on a high note, highlighted by insurance giant MetLife deciding in March to open a global technology and operations hub in Cary that is expected to employ 1,300 workers in three years. This year, Wake County also attracted Ipreo, a New York firm that intends to employ 250 people in downtown Raleigh by 2017, and Evalueserve, which has targeted hiring 400 workers by the end of 2017.
Other key wins in recent years included recruiting Red Hat and Citrix Systems to downtown Raleigh.
Former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker lauded Atkins as a “very sophisticated economic developer” whose forte has been putting together incentive packages that made sense for both the companies he was recruiting and for the municipalities that funded them.
“He has lots and lots of contacts,” Meeker said. “He certainly knows everybody.”
Schmitt, who hired Atkins, said that one of his first moves was to rename what had been known as the Greater Raleigh Chamber’s economic development program to Wake County Economic Development to get more buy-in from municipalities across the county.
“When the economic development staff from the Greater Raleigh Chamber goes to Apex, it’s a little hard to convince them you’re there to help them,” Schmitt said. “Ken changed the brand.”
Atkins supervises an economic development staff of eight. Last year, the Chamber provided $1.6 million from the private sector. Wake County provided $289,500, and the city of Raleigh, $220,000.
“He’s a total pro,” said Wayne Watkins, a project manager who works for Atkins. “He was definitely not a micro-manager. … He gives you the tools to do it and lets you go do it.”
Atkins, a native of Raleigh and a graduate of Broughton High School, has a bachelor’s degree in economics from N.C. State University. Before joining the Chamber, he was president of the Catawba County Economic Development Corp. for 16 years. From 1980 to 1982, he was director of the Franklin County economic development department, which he says “was a department of one – me.”
Atkins said he’s retiring because “I’m ready for a little slower-paced activity,” but he doesn’t anticipate sitting entirely on the sidelines.
“Even at (nearly) 65, I still have a lot of energy,” he said. “I’m not ready to completely retire.”
Atkins doesn’t have specific plans but is interested in doing something that would allow more time for fishing and spending time at his Morehead City beach house with his wife, Glad. He would be happy if he somehow remained involved in economic development.
“It’s about recruiting really good jobs so people can have a good quality of life,” he said. “I feel good about that.”
Schmitt said a national search will be conducted to find a successor.
“I would hope to have somebody by the first of the year or shortly thereafter,” he said.