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Charlotte: Opportunity City

By Caroline McMillan
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com

Even as he comes off a year of promoting Charlotte’s growing class of entrepreneurs and small business owners on the international stage, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx realizes the long-time bank town is still far from a hub for start-ups and research.

That’s why developing the city’s new high-growth entrepreneurship strategy was a top priority of the Charlotte City Council, and why snagging the upcoming 2013 Southeast Venture Conference in March – a major annual event for investors and entrepreneurs – could be a pivotal coup for the city.

“It’s important that Charlotte be a city where innovation can grow – and stay,” said Foxx at an October “Innovation Exchange” event, hosted by the Charlotte Chamber to spotlight entrepreneurial strategies and business partnerships.

Foxx said he wants to create a local business environment that incentivizes start-ups to stay here once they get traction: “We don’t want Charlotte to be like the Jackson 5, where all the brothers are working together and one goes off and makes it big.”

ShopTalk spoke with Foxx, who’s up for re-election in 2013, about Charlotte’s climate for entrepreneurs and where he thinks the local business community is headed.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

What are you hearing from local entrepreneurs?

First is that Charlotte has a very deep, dark valley of the shadow of death – that place between the start-up, the great idea, some customers and the other bookend, which is huge enterprise, lots of customers, lots of employees, everything’s humming.

Between those bookends, entrepreneurs in Charlotte struggle with access to capital, recognition, basic support.

What areas do you look to as examples of how to accomplish this?

I’m not ashamed to say the Research Triangle is a good model for us. We’ll have another huge opportunity with the (North Carolina) Research Campus in Kannapolis, which is doing partnerships with some of the universities in the city. (The campus, built on the site of a former textile mill, is a center for biotechnological, agricultural, food science, and nutritional research.) UNC Charlotte will be another research hub. We just have to grow it. Here, we have opportunities in automotive technology, health sciences, bioinformatics, energy.

What do you hear from established small business owners faring in this economy?

Capital continues to be a challenge. There are small businesses that float themselves and their payroll on a monthly basis and then pay back their loan. But a lot of companies (had) their loans closed down, even though they had products to sell and customers who’d buy them.

On getting contract work with the city:

The first criteria is that the company has the ability to do the job. Like in construction, some businesses have great competence but don’t have the ability to bond their work. Those type of issues come up. We’re looking for the maximum output for the lowest possible dollar.

Discuss the state of small business in Charlotte:

While we’ve had a great run of large employers expanding or relocating to our city and we continue to work with that, a huge opportunity for this city is growing small business.

The most urgent hurdle in 2009 was lending and access to capital. So we got our banks at the table and worked with the Chamber to stage an access-to-capital conference, which brought in federal policy leaders and (offered) “speed-dating” between lenders, capital providers and small business people. The Chamber has continued to support that.

On attracting venture capital:

We face a huge structural challenge: Research dollars attract venture capital. Venture capitalists want to go where the ideas are being generated, and will invest in companies physically close to those ideas because they can move those ideas to market faster. And even though we (Charlotte) have 20-plus percent of the state’s population, we get 2 percent of the (federal) research dollars. We don’t have Duke, UNC, N.C. State, N.C. Central – a critical mass of huge universities sitting in our backyard. (Getting venture capital) will be one of the real litmus tests for how much progress we make.

What has been the process for getting research dollars ?

The great thing is the private-sector engagement in growing our city. What we’ve lacked in (public) research dollars, we’ve historically had because the private sector had a direct interest in the outcome of that research. But we’ve got to make a case for private and public grant-makers to help us grow UNCC. It will be the gift that keeps on giving for sector growth, drawing research dollars, venture capital and helping entrepreneurs take root.

What did the Democratic National Convention do for small businesses?

The convention (gave) many people a shot at being part of a marquee event. Event planning, catering, construction, transportation, electricians – name any area of activity associated with the convention and small business owners were part of it. There were more than 1,000 events.

I was visiting with a small business owner who had been with a large construction firm and started a new one with a partner. He’s now up to five employees. For the convention, they did work on Time Warner Cable Arena. That’s going to be a calling card for him.

What’s your advice for a small business owner who’s barely hanging on?

Ask for help. People who start these small businesses are self-starters and are used to having to solve their own problems. That’s good. But there are support systems to help (with) information, relationships, potential customers.

Business is such a part of Charlotte’s DNA, and this environment is only going to get better for small business and entrepreneurship.

McMillan: 704-358-6045
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