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Official: Battles over Charlotte airport and state politics hurting job recruitment efforts

The Charlotte region’s top jobs recruiter says the state and region’s pro-business, “New South” brand is being jeopardized by the ongoing fight for control of the airport and the fallout from emotional legislative debates in Raleigh about abortion and other issues.

Ronnie Bryant, head of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, said during a meeting with the Observer’s editorial board Thursday that his nonprofit economic development group is working with 71 companies interested in moving operations to or expanding them in the Charlotte region.

He didn’t say any of those firms were taking the region off their list because of the recent political battles. But he said a spate of negative national headlines about North Carolina politics has out-of-state business leaders asking him: “What the hell’s going on down there?”

He said corporations looking to relocate often begin winnowing the field of candidates by looking for information online. He said the Charlotte region’s prospects are being hurt by negative headlines about the state on national news sites such as the Huffington Post.

A search for “North Carolina” within the left-leaning site’s search engine Thursday morning turned up stories about controversial legislation Republican North Carolina lawmakers have pushed through restricting abortion rights, requiring voter identification, expanding gun rights and curtailing unemployment benefits.

A high-profile editorial in The New York Times last month titled “The Decline of North Carolina” assailed state lawmakers for such measures, saying they were demolishing the state’s reputation as “a beacon of farsightedness in the South.”

Gov. Pat McCrory fired back, saying the newspaper was painting an unfair picture. He said the state is making a “powerful comeback,” and noted that corporations have announced plans to create more than 9,300 jobs and invest more than $1.1 billion in North Carolina facilities.

N.C. Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, was a primary sponsor of bills to require a voter ID and limit abortions. She said Forbes magazine and The Wall Street Journal have run stories about the state’s positive business climate – even suggesting that other states might want to follow North Carolina’s lead in reducing corporate tax rates.

“Yes, there have been certain publications who have made sport of us,” she said in an interview Thursday, “but there are others that are patting us on the back.”

Perceptions of ‘turmoil’

Tim Feemster, a Texas-based corporate relocation consultant, said it’s too early to tell whether the “noise” surrounding North Carolina politics this summer will have any lasting impact on the state’s image in job recruiting circles.

But in a field dominated by risk-averse CEOs, he said, negative national news coverage does matter – especially if states competing for their business seem otherwise equal.

North Carolina has a reputation as a business-friendly state, added Feemster, a four-decade veteran of the relocation business and head of Foremost Quality Logistics in Dallas.

“But there are perceptions that there is turmoil. And turmoil implies risk, which implies danger ... that type of news is not flattering to the reputation of a state.”

Bryant of the Charlotte Regional Partnership said he’s heard lawmakers express doubts that articles in The New York Times can affect business recruitment in North Carolina. But he said the corporate leaders his agency woos do see such national reports.

“Anybody who’s trying to understand or get an opinion of our state, yes, it matters,” Bryant said. “It means a lot.”

Bryant said he went to New York two weeks ago to talk to corporate relocation consultants about “trying to change the messaging” about Charlotte. It wasn’t the first time he and other city leaders have gone there seeking a public relations advantage for the city and region.

He said the partnership, the Charlotte Chamber, Charlotte Center City Partners and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority have banded together in the past couple of years to mount a $200,000-per-year national marketing campaign.

Charlotte public relations firm Luquire George Andrews and New York City-based Development Counsellors International helped area leaders tout the region’s virtues in The Washington Post, The New York Times and other national outlets.

“All of our efforts over the past few years have been negated over the past few weeks,” Bryant, said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

Bryant also said any company considering the Charlotte region because of its airport has to be concerned about the ongoing uncertainty at Charlotte Douglas International.

The city and state lawmakers from Charlotte’s suburbs have been battling in Raleigh and in the courts for control of the city-run airport. Lawmakers think it would be better operated by a new independent commission they created, but the city has gone to court to block a change in control.

A Mecklenburg County judge ruled Aug.1 that the transfer to the commission cannot occur until approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. No timetable has been given by the FAA.

Bryant and Peter Acker, chairman of the partnership’s board, said they are reminding corporate executives of Charlotte’s progressive, pro-business tradition.

“We just want to make sure that, in a constructive way, that the merits and the qualities of the Charlotte region don’t get lost in the attention that’s more recently been given to this area,” said Acker, a Carolinas Healthcare System executive.

A cut in state support

The legislature cut its support of the partnership from about $500,000 to about $130,000 this year as part of a broader plan to revamp North Carolina job recruitment efforts. State officials plan to launch a statewide public-private economic development group that they think can be more nimble and aggressive than the current regionalized system.

While the changes will mean the end of four rural economic development groups, Bryant said it doesn’t kill the job recruitment groups in the Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro areas because the groups weren’t created by the state. He said it remains unclear how the new statewide group will work with the existing regional ones. There could be competition, Bryant said, especially for fundraising dollars.

He said his group, which is supported financially by dozens of major corporations, has gotten good response so far in its efforts to raise an additional $350,000 from private sources.

Bryant said the partnership has been dealing with declining state support for years and will be able to continue promoting Charlotte without cutting staff or curtailing its recruiting activities.

“While it was a setback to lose that kind of money,” Acker added, “it doesn’t affect our goals or how we work.”

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