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Eye on Development

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Charlotte’s economy set to flourish in 2014, but N.C. rural areas still suffering

By Eric Frazier
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:

As Charlotte ended 2012, we were sweating through nearly double-digit unemployment and wondering whether our wobbly post-recession economic recovery would hold up.

But as economists, bankers, real estate developers and civic boosters look back over 2013, and peer ahead to 2014, our collective optimism is rising.

Unemployment in Mecklenburg is down to 7.7 percent, according to North Carolina Department of Commerce data for October, the latest available. Over the year, the Charlotte metropolitan area registered the state’s largest net employment gain – 28,400 jobs, a 3.3 percent increase.

Housing sales and home prices are up. More companies are moving or expanding to the area. Insurance giant MetLife, perhaps Charlotte’s biggest corporate relocation of 2013, already employs 640 people at its new U.S. retail hub in Ballantyne. That’s ahead of pace for the company’s goal of creating 1,300 jobs there by 2015.

And more good jobs are on the way. Gov. Pat McCrory looked downright giddy recently as he stood with an arm slung over the shoulder of Electrolux CEO Jack Truong while they briefed reporters about 810 high-paying new jobs the appliance-maker is bringing to Charlotte’s University Research Park.

Things definitely seem to be looking up for the Charlotte region’s economy. But yet, even as McCrory celebrated the good news with Electrolux, his staff took pains to point out that the company also has workers in Kinston and Asheville – nearly 1,500 statewide.

It’s a regional issue the governor doubtlessly must navigate with caution. The state’s three metropolitan areas – Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle – have supplied nearly 70 percent of the state’s net job growth from 2010-13, according to Michael Walden, an economist at N.C. State University.

It’s almost as if McCrory’s presiding over two states with two very different economic realities.

The metro areas are barreling ahead, driving the state’s recovery. The rural areas are still struggling to compete in a digital-age economy with workforces not much different from those that powered the tobacco, textiles and furniture manufacturing plants that once dominated North Carolina’s economy.

Walden wrote in his winter 2013 economic outlook for the state that North Carolina’s economy is moving away from traditional manufacturing to service sectors and new high-tech manufacturing that requires fewer and better-trained workers.

“The shift is largely complete in the metropolitan counties, where the location of universities and a college-educated workforce has made those regions more fluid and dynamic,” Walden wrote. “But the transition has been enormously more problematic in small town/rural counties, where local levels of educational attainment have made it difficult to attract jobs – particularly high-paying ones.”

Manufacturing, he wrote, still accounts for 400,000 jobs in the state, but employment in the sector has dropped by 45 percent in the state since 1990, even while high-tech advances keep production levels rising.

“This shift may actually accelerate in coming years,” he wrote, “creating a challenge for the state to find new employment opportunities for the displaced workers.”

The unemployment rate in Scotland County was 14.4 percent in October, the latest data available. That was almost double Mecklenburg’s rate.

Charlotte’s leaders would be foolish to think the struggles such areas face won’t affect the way lawmakers look at the Queen City and its needs.

I can’t say I know the answers. But here’s hoping North Carolina makes some headway toward finding them in 2014.

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