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Charlotte Chamber, city leaders learn lessons in Houston

By Eric Frazier
efrazier@charlotteobserver.com
Eric Frazier
Eric Frazier covers economic development. He has been reporting and editing at the Observer for more than 15 years. If you have a story idea or news tip to share, contact him at:

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HOUSTON When the Charlotte Chamber’s annual fact-finding inter-city trip took local movers and shakers to Houston in 1998, this Texas city was rebuilding from the oil bust of the 1980s, when it lost 200,000 jobs.

I’d say the rebuilding phase is over. During the chamber’s return visit last week, Houston’s leaders boasted that the nation’s fourth-largest city has hit economic overdrive, thanks to a now-thriving oil and gas industry and the 3,700 energy-related firms operating there.

Houston and its 4.2 million residents were among the last to dip into the national recession and among the first out, Mayor Annise Parker said.

Unemployment here has dropped to around 6 percent, compared to 8.5 percent in Mecklenburg County. From March 2012 to March 2013, Houston’s economy added more than 100,000 jobs, a growth rate of 3.8 percent. The Charlotte area added 18,000 jobs, or 2.5 percent.

“I guess you could say Houston is hot,” joked Genaro Pena, an official with the Greater Houston Partnership, referring both to job development and the sweltering 98-degree weather outside.

It’s hardly utopia. Half the room recoiled in horror when Parker said that the city has no zoning code. When retired Observer business columnist Doug Smith tagged along on the 1998 trip, he noted how jarring it was to see rundown buildings next to sleek new ones.

“A planning administrator’s worst nightmare,” he wrote.

That much remains true, though deed restrictions and other safeguards prevent things from going totally haywire. But in significant other ways, Houston showed glimpses of what tiny-by-comparison Charlotte might hope to be when it grows up.

Some takeaways from the trip:

• Transportation needn’t be an either-or proposition. Houston’s got suburban sprawl with the best of them. Three outer-loop highways ring the city. But it also opened its light-rail system in 2004, and is aggressively expanding it from 7.5 miles of track to 22. Tolls are an accepted option for building new highways.

• Capitalize on your strengths. Houston has ridden its natural historical position as an oil industry headquarters to prosperity. While the oil bust of the 1980s showed the dangers of heavy reliance on one industry, panel discussions featuring Houston leaders left the impression that a city can’t stop playing its best card.

Several leaders from Houston suggested that, even as Charlotte tries to diversify its economy following the banking crisis, it should still play on its position as a financial center to attract new industries. As one energy company CEO noted, banking services are a universal business need.

• Be open to new people and ideas. As much as Charlotte considers itself open to newcomers, multiple Charlotteans on the trip said Houston seemed to take it even further as the multinational oil firms bring in people from around the globe.

In Charlotte, it isn’t uncommon to hear longtime residents fret that the city will lose its character as it grows from a middle-tier city to toward the top tier. Houston officials seemed to have few apprehensions along those lines. They kept urging Charlotte to embrace growth and change.

The openness to new people and ideas caught City Manager Ron Carlee’s attention.

“I have seen fairly consistently as I have visited highly successful cities, those that are more open and inclusive compete better in the global environment,” he said during the trip.

• A competitive business climate matters – a lot. With no state income tax, cheap energy and aggressive incentives, Texas cities like Houston make for tough competition when it comes to attracting industry. Businesses keep coming, and keep growing. Minority- and women-owned businesses are doing well enough for Eric Watson, head of the Carolinas Minority Supplier Development Council, to label his Houston counterpart Dick Huebner a “rock star.”

“If you can’t make it in Houston, you can’t make it anywhere,” said Huebner, president of the Houston Minority Supplier Development Council.

Here’s hoping the same can be said of Charlotte.

Eric Frazier writes about economic development. Got a story tip? Contact him at 704-358-5145, efrazier@charlotteobserver.com or @Ericfraz on Twitter.
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