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Is General Assembly scaring off business?

By Taylor Batten

The Observer editorial board’s conversation with Ronnie Bryant took a sudden and surprising turn – from mundane to provocative – on Thursday.

Bryant is the CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, making him the top job recruiter for the Charlotte region. He was going through his talking points about his organization’s important work, when we asked whether North Carolina’s controversial legislature has had any effect on his business-recruitment efforts.

He perked up.

“All of our efforts in my opinion in the past couple of years (to build the Charlotte region’s brand) have been negated here in the last few weeks. It is devastating,” Bryant said.

“I was in New York two weeks ago trying to do some damage control. It’s out there,” Bryant said.

What are business leaders asking you?

“The number one question: What the hell are you guys doing?”

It’s extraordinary for a prominent economic developer to criticize the very state leaders who could help steer prospects his way. So clearly Bryant is agitated.

But what do we take from his outcry? Is Bryant’s an important warning that Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led legislature are endangering North Carolina’s reputation with business? Or was he just speaking out of frustration after the state cut its appropriation to his group from $500,000 to $130,000, and next year to zero? Did his personal political views shade his assessment?

I imagine the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Without a doubt, the General Assembly grabbed national attention for its no-holds-barred undoing of years of Democratic policies. North Carolina stood out this summer for passing some of the nation’s most restrictive voting laws, imposing significant new restrictions on abortion, cutting off federal unemployment benefits to 70,000 people and rejecting federally funded Medicaid for half a million residents, among other things. When the New York Times wrote an editorial headlined, “The decline of North Carolina” last month, it was that paper’s leading hit-getter that day and sparked more than 1,300 comments.

Does it matter, though, when it comes to attracting business? Bryant insists it does. “One bad story can negate 100 good stories,” he says.

But if I’m a CEO deciding where to move or expand my business, I’m looking at things like taxes, the workforce, the airport and interstates – more than whether a loony legislator proposed a state religion or seeks to outlaw nipples.

In fact, Bryant mentioned that he has 71 companies eyeing the Charlotte region right now, and he didn’t say any of them had crossed us off the list because of negative press about North Carolina. The day before Bryant’s visit, Forbes named Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham among its 20 Best Places for Business And Careers nationwide based on a dozen factors related to job growth, business and living costs, workforce, quality of life and other measures.

I talked to four folks in the economic development and site selection business to gather some context for Bryant’s remarks. All four were surprised, either because they see North Carolina still competing vigorously for businesses or because they don’t believe the legislature’s actions have sparked headlines that have tarnished North Carolina nationally.

“What headlines are you talking about?” asked Buzz Canup, who runs a site selection firm in Greenville, S.C. That’s probably a good sign for North Carolina – a guy in the business, right next door, and the N.C. General Assembly is not on his radar.

Canup said political fights can make a difference on job recruitment. The battles a decade ago over the Confederate flag in several Southern states were discussed in company board rooms, Canup says, and last year’s political uprising in Wisconsin has hurt that state’s business recruitment. But political activity has to be really dramatic to scare companies off if the state or region is otherwise a good fit.

“Charlotte is a unique city in the South. It’s vibrant, it’s growing,” Canup said. “And North Carolina has always carried a strong reputation in the economic development field.”

I don’t doubt that Bryant is running into blowback. And you don’t know what you don’t know: It’s possible we’re being discreetly cut off companies’ lists in what’s known as the “site-elimination business.”

But if I were a gambling man, I’d still put my money on Charlotte and North Carolina, regardless of who holds the gavel in Raleigh.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter: @tbatten1.
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