Charlotte has been a big-company town for a long time, says Packard Place co-founder Dan Roselli. For years, elected officials and economic developers focused their attention on the Fortune 500, corporate headquarters and uptown skyscrapers.
That’s starting to change.
“We have gotten much more connected and coordinated in the last two years,” Roselli said. “And now there’s an opportunity for entrepreneurship to come forward and, so to speak, take its rightful seat at the table in the economic development community.”
For that to happen, Roselli says it’s going to take more of Charlotte’s political leaders listening and responding to the needs and desires of the entrepreneurial and small business community. The natural way to keep that going, he said, is a candidates’ forum.
That’s what led Roselli’s Packard Place, the uptown start-up hub, to invite the two mayoral candidates and numerous city council candidates to its building this Thursday. ShopTalk is co-sponsoring the event, which will take the form of a classic entrepreneurial pitch.
Candidates will have two minutes to make their elevator speech to the 200 or so people expected to attend. After that, the entrepreneurs and small-business owners there will be able to meet the candidates.
Both mayoral candidates, Democrat Patrick Cannon and Republican Edwin Peacock III, are scheduled to attend.
Whoever is elected will have big shoes to fill in the entrepreneurial community, in Roselli’s eyes. He said he had taken to calling former Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx “America’s most supportive mayor for entrepreneurship” before he left to take the helm of the U.S. Department of Transportation this summer.
“He took it very personally,” Roselli said. “He would meet on a regular basis. He knew us by name. He understood the role of mayor in supporting entrepreneurship.”
City as connector
That emphasis also turned into some action in the city government level. After Foxx was elected mayor in 2009, the city council adopted two separate plans to support small businesses and entrepreneurs.
The first was a small business strategy in 2010 that aimed at making the city government a concierge for small companies looking for what services local business support groups have to offer. From that stemmed CharlotteBusinessResources.com and regular meetings between 14 groups that look to help small-business owners.
“We have one main thing people know us for,” said Natasha Warren, small-business services manager for the city of Charlotte. “That’s to advocate for businesses, particularly small businesses, and to connect them to the resources they need to be successful.”
The next year, the City Council started work on another strategic plan aimed at entrepreneurs working on high-growth startups. It tasks the Charlotte mayor and council members with being ambassadors around the region and country for the city’s business climate.
“We want them to be well-versed on how to sell, for lack of a better word, Charlotte as a great place for entrepreneurship,” Warren said.
The city has also started raising money for a grant fund to help startups. Charlotte has agreed to pony up as much as $500,000, given that it can raise an equal amount from the community.
Candidates weigh in
Cannon and Peacock say they’re well-suited to handle issues facing small businesses and entrepreneurs. But the two mayoral candidates talk about them in very different ways.
Cannon, the Democratic candidate who’s served on the city council since 1993, says the biggest issue facing the small business and entrepreneur community is access to capital and support in putting together a strong business plan.
Cannon said the city should continue to work on its role in connecting business owners and entrepreneurs to the resources that are out there. The mayor’s role, then, is “providing collaborative efforts with public and private sector entities, as we have done, to help grow and sustain small businesses – which are the backbone of our economy,” he said.
In the late 1990s, Cannon launched an uptown parking business called E-Z Parking. It started by managing a small lot on North Tryon Street and has now expanded to about 25,000 spaces.
And when he talks now about issues facing small businesses, he’s speaking mainly about locally focused ones like his. Still, he said he’s sensitive to the much different slate of problems facing high-tech, high-growth startups.
“My door would always be open as mayor,” he said. “Small businesses and entrepreneurs mean so much not just to the city of Charlotte, but to the country as a whole.”
‘Living off past glory’
Peacock takes a different approach. He focuses much more heavily on the high-growth piece of the entrepreneur world – and says startups and small businesses in Charlotte suffer from under-appreciation.
“They are not being appreciated because Charlotte is still, in my opinion, living off past glory,” he said. “We tend to be more conservative on the business front.”
The answer, Peacock says, is creating more of a startup culture that allows risk-taking and failure. He cites the “innovation corridor” that the local government and Center City Partners dreamed up as part of the Charlotte Vision 2020 Plan as an example.
He sees the path between North Tryon Street and UNC Charlotte, anchored by an extended light rail, becoming home to an incubator of sorts, full of high-growth startups working closely with industry groups. He also said he hopes that Novant Health and Carolinas HealthCare system will team up for a teaching hospital.
“I think a mayor’s in the most unique position because they’re the one that will be a unique actor in helping to encourage this type of risk-taking,” Peacock said.
As a financial adviser with Northwestern Mutual, Peacock says he works with small businesses and startups every day. He’s become conversant in their language, he said, and would bring that experience to city hall.
“My job as a professional has been to understand their goals and objectives, help them get there safely,” he said. “That’s what I do.”
Dunn: 704-358-5235; Twitter: @andrew_dunn
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