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Thinking our way to economic success

Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

“To do the impossible, you must see the invisible.”

David Murdock's credo has been around for a while, but it's reshaping Kannapolis and is timely advice for pulling the Charlotte region out of its economic doldrums.

Murdock, the 86-year-old billionaire owner of Dole Foods and Castle & Cooke, saw the invisible when he dreamed up the North Carolina Research Campus. That biotechnology research center on the 350-acre former Pillowtex site promises to create jobs and help invent the future of agriculture, food and medicine.

By bringing together government, private universities, corporations and others (and investing $1 billion of his own money), Murdock rescued Kannapolis from the crumbling of Pillowtex. That one piece of land is symbolic of what has to happen in Charlotte and across North Carolina: adapting from a traditional but dying industry (in this case, textiles) to new and diverse economic drivers. Murdock has transformed the site from one where workers made sheets and towels to one where workers research solutions to global problems.

A knowledge-based economy

Murdock was honored Thursday with the Charlotte Regional Partnership's annual Jerry Award for his work in the private sector. (UNC Charlotte won for its public sector work.) In the award luncheon's keynote address, UNC system president Erskine Bowles laid out a clear challenge for Charlotte and the region: We cannot rest on our laurels, or do things the same old way. The crippling economy, and in particular the toll it has taken on the financial sector, requires us to develop new ways of thinking, a new entrepreneurial spirit. Only the innovative will thrive.

Bowles quoted the late George Autry, the founder of Chapel Hill think tank MDC, Inc., and one of the great thinkers about the region's economy. The economy of the future, Autry said years ago, will be based not on what we make or what we dig or what we pick. It will be based on what we think.

That's a huge cultural shift in a state built on manufacturing and furniture and textiles and tobacco.

Autry was prophetic, and his vision is even more true today than when he said it. The economy of the future is knowledge-based, and we have to embrace that if we want to be part of that economy. Bowles said every business he talks to needs people who can think creatively, analyze situations, work with diverse people and solve problems.

Make education cuts wisely

Such people aren't just born. They're educated, in K-12, in community colleges and in universities. Everything is connected. The health of tomorrow's economy hinges on the quality of today's education. America will compete globally, and North Carolina will compete regionally, only as well as it educates its children and young adults.

Which brings us to budget season. County commissioners and state legislators are crafting budgets in an environment like none of them have experienced. With education such a big part of county and state budgets, it is inevitable that its spending will be cut.

State lawmakers are considering cutting the UNC system budget by 11 percent, or more than $336 million. At the same time, students could face 8 percent tuition hikes. Mecklenburg County manager Harry Jones has recommended a $34 million cut for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, or close to 10 percent.

Everyone has to share in the budget pain. But that doesn't mean you don't have priorities, and education must be priority No. 1.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com.

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