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Changing global economy threatens to leave Charlotte behind, speakers say

The business landscape is changing quickly, with an increasingly globalized economy and the digital revolution threatening to leave Charlotte behind if its business and political leaders aren’t careful.

That warning came from multiple speakers Thursday at 2013 Global Charlotte, a breakfast symposium aimed at helping the city’s business leaders capitalize on global opportunities.

The gathering at the Ritz-Carlton, sponsored by the Charlotte Business Journal and JPMorgan Chase bank, featured a keynote speech from former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who argued that cities like Charlotte must broaden the scope of their international business recruitment efforts.

The foreign country with the biggest number of firms in Charlotte is Germany, with 127, according to the Charlotte Chamber.

“I know you’re more oriented to Europe, but China, Russia and South America ... they want to get involved,” Daley said. “Every time I go to China there’s a delegation from Greenville, South Carolina ... They’re really reaching out to the world.”

State and local officials at the conference said they’re doing just that.

North Carolina exports $29 billion worth of products and services around the world, and exports have grown each year over the past three years, said Jean Davis, director of international trade for the N.C. Department of Commerce.

“The opportunities are amazing,” she said, “but of course the challenges also exist.”

Many speakers pointed to Asia as a must for international business developers.

Eileen Cai, who heads the chamber’s efforts to bring Asian companies to Charlotte, noted that while the chamber publishes its marketing materials online in multiple languages, the top three downloaded are in Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

J. Tyler Rollins, executive director of international banking for JPMorgan Chase, said Brazil is generating a lot of interest from companies in the Carolinas.

China is “at the top of the list” for many firms, he added, but the high cultural barriers leave many asking for literature explaining what it’s like to do business there.

“Basically, what people are looking for is ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’ in China,” he said, referring to the popular book bought by millions of anxious parents-in-waiting.

Former Mayor Harvey Gantt said to capitalize on international opportunities, the city must improve its schools and its infrastructure. He made reference to a recent consultant’s report that Charlotte is $3 billion short on financing needed to build out its long-range transit plan.

He said political leaders should consider increasing taxes to get it done.

“If we want to be attractive to the world, we’re not going to be attractive ... if we’re still dealing with a 20th-century attitude toward public transit,” he said.

Strategic planning consultant Michael Gallis called for the city to build one unified light-rail system, rather than the patchwork of light rail, streetcars and heavy rail local leaders have proposed.

He said such public infrastructure helps make cities more marketable to companies.

Good quality of life, along with a healthy research and development sector, helps build what he called the kind of “innovation culture” that made Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg move his firm to the Bay Area despite its high taxes and heavy regulations.

“I don’t think Facebook got a single nickel from the state of California,” he said, contrasting that with millions in incentives the Carolinas gave to attract Boeing to North Charleston and MetLife to Charlotte.

Frazier: 704-358-5145; @ericfraz on Twitter
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