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Eye on Development


N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker outlines her push to put people back to work

By Eric Frazier
    In her push to improve North Carolina’s economy, Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker plans to create a public-private partnership to take over marketing the state to outside companies. She’s “looking for someone with integrity” to head it.
    N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker sits down with The Observer to talk about the still-evolving shakeup in the state’s economic development system and what the McCrory administration is doing to get the high unemployment rate down.

N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker, a former Duke Energy executive and former chairwoman of the Charlotte Chamber board, is leading Gov. Pat McCrory’s effort to revamp the state’s economic development system and bring down its unemployment rate, which stood at 8.7 percent in August, the latest month for which figures are available.

She’s been touring the state talking about the changes and listening to residents’ suggestions on improving the economy. She sat down with the Observer to talk about her efforts. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q So what are you hearing as you travel the state?

A There is a sense of despair I hear in rural communities. A great deal of anxiety around what the future looks like. Part of our challenge at the state is helping folks understand what they have to work with, changing the business climate, doing those things from a policy standpoint that make it easier to get businesses started. We’re trying to reignite communities’ passion for rebuilding.

Q What are the obstacles?

A Our rural communities, in particular, are aging. But our state is urbanizing. Part of the challenge is thinking about rural economies differently. There probably will be, rather than lots of independent little towns, hubs of growth where folks commute for work. And that can be healthy. We have to think about micro-regions.

If you look at Rutherford, Cleveland, Polk, McDowell counties, what I’ve begun to refer to as the Foothills Crescent, those communities are more alike than they are like Asheville or than they are like Charlotte.

Q How do you see the state’s education system fitting into the development picture?

A I was recently in a community that has done a very good job getting sites ready for development. It’s on an interstate highway, so the infrastructure’s in pretty good shape. But their educational system’s among the worst in the state.

And really, until that gets a different result, it’s going to be hard to recruit business to that area. I’m not sure we’ve fully understood that factor. To begin to look at that as an economic development factor is a critical piece of what this administration wants to make clear. You can’t separate those two.

Q Well, the McCrory administration has been taking a lot of heat lately from teachers upset over low pay and other issues.

A I think you’re going to see in this short (legislative) session that (issue) addressed. I know the governor is very focused on it. He’s been spending a lot of energy and a lot of time around it, saying, “What do we need to do to right the ship?”

Q You’re creating a statewide public-private partnership to take over the job of marketing and selling the state to outside companies. You’re also trying to hire a CEO for that job. What qualities are you looking for in that person?

A I want a C-suite executive, someone who knows how to manage an operation, particularly someone who has done a startup or turnaround. Because a startup is what it is. Secondly, someone who’s passionate about North Carolina.

I’ve looked at some candidates from outside of the state, but in this initial assignment, it needs to be someone who understands the culture and some of the change we’re going through. I also want someone who has not been engaged in the political process.

I’m looking for someone with integrity. That’s really important, particularly as we establish that the standards and practices we put in our bylaws are all above board.

We anticipate that we’ll have a new CEO on in the next few weeks, then first-quarter implementation of phase one. That will be the business development piece, the recruiters and the folks who are working with existing business. Phase two will be small business, international trade and tourism. It’ll probably be April, early May before we make that transition.

Q Concerns have been raised about transparency and potential conflicts of interest that could arise from any public-private partnership in which leaders from major corporations join the state in recruiting new industry.

A You probably read the Good Jobs First report (which found that some such partnerships in other states had fallen victim to pay-to-play scandals and other ethical issues). None of that was surprising because we’d done our research during the transition and when I came aboard to look at the types of partnerships around the country. And there have been some problems, no doubt about it. That really dictated how we want to approach this.

So all of the grant-making will stay on the public side. The privatized sales and marketing functions will not do the grant-making themselves. They will work with the client, identify what the opportunity is, and then the grant-making function on the public side will manage that process. That’s one place a number of states didn’t do well.

We’re going to have in our bylaws the caveat that if you’re on the (partnership) board and your company is coming forward with a grant, you’ve got to remove yourself from that conversation.

Q How do you see the existing regional partnerships fitting in, particularly the ones in Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro that have said they expect to continue their own job recruitment efforts?

A Here’s how I’m beginning to see it shaping out: Our objective was to say we’re going to move the state dollars from a regional level to the state level, and we’re going to promote North Carolina again. We’re going to aggressively market the state, knowing that if the regional partners are adding value at a regional level, their private partners will continue to fund them.

What’s already beginning to happen is what we’d hoped would happen, and that is that they begin to rethink what they do. I will tell you that the Charlotte, Triangle and Triad partnerships had a relationship, but it’s safe to say they didn’t work together. So when all three of them showed up in my office a few months ago, I was a little nervous. But they came to say, “We’re going to market together the Interstate 85 corridor,” I was very pleased.

Q You’ve spoken about there being a skills gap, where manufacturers are looking for skilled workers but can’t find them. What is being done about that?

A Around my table growing up, my daddy would say to me, “You can grow up and be and do anything you want to, but for God’s sake, don’t come back and work in a mill.” And we said that for two generations. And agriculturally, we’ve said the same thing. And now we’re in an economy where we need them in advanced manufacturing, and we need them in agribusiness.

Q What are your thoughts on the struggle between the city and suburban Mecklenburg lawmakers over who should run Charlotte Douglas International Airport?

A I don’t know what the governance structure ought to be. I do know we need a healthy airport in Charlotte. This hub is very, very important to our economy. Whatever the answer is as to how it needs to be managed, we need to get it resolved. If there’s one thing that has been underscored for me, it’s that uncertainty is one of the strongest detriments to economic development. Businesses want to know what to expect. So resolve it quickly, and let’s focus on continuing to operate a fantastic hub.

Q How well-positioned are we to compete against neighboring states?

A We’re very competitive. We’ve got to get faster in our decision-making, and that’s a driver to the reorganization. We need to be more flexible in how we put together what we offer. For example, I would put our workforce offerings, our customized worker retraining programs that the community colleges offer, up against anyone. But we’ve not done a good job packaging them so that it’s understandable.

There’s a lot of conversation these days about mega-sites, should we develop a site that would allow us to attract a BMW or a Boeing as South Carolina has done. We think that has to be a part of the strategy. There are several locations that are developing sites, and we are beginning to talk about what will it take to get a large deal that would give us (an employment) multiplier. We need a few more large gains in jobs to really begin to get some traction (on lowering unemployment). We’ve got some great locations, but we’ve got to be very targeted and aggressively go after it.

Eric Frazier writes about development, jobs and the economy. Got a story tip? Contact him at 704-358-5145, or @Ericfraz on Twitter.
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