Business Columns & Blogs

February 28, 2014

Can Charlotte become a global economic powerhouse?

A group that includes some of the most powerful people in Charlotte wants to make the region a global hub for business innovation, advanced manufacturing and logistics.

We all know that in today’s global economy, we can’t take good jobs for granted.

They can be here one day, then packed off the next to Guadalajara or Mumbai or Singapore tomorrow with the stroke of a corporate pen.

Cities, counties, states, even countries, are battling for every new job or factory, every corporate headquarters relocation. Just Tuesday, a Charlotte delegation traveled to the White House to talk with federal officials about making the Queen City more globally competitive in advanced manufacturing.

Any CEO struggling to hold onto or grow market share knows she must have a coherent business strategy, one that includes a strong marketing plan that lets customers or clients know exactly what sets her company apart.

In the increasingly frantic global competition for jobs, what’s Charlotte’s plan?

A group of influential civic, business and political leaders is trying to answer that question. Participants have been holding breakfast meetings, seminars and conferences for the past few years, trying to hammer out Charlotte’s business plan for winning in the global marketplace.

They’re so loosely formed they don’t have one of those tricked-out acronym titles. They call themselves the “global vision leaders group.”

When they met for a late January breakfast in the executive dining room at Bank of America Corporate Center, one glance around the room told me this is the type of group that gets big things done.

Their ranks included the mayor, the city manager, the county manager and county commissioners’ chair, the airport director, the Charlotte market presidents for Bank of America and Wells Fargo, and the heads of the Charlotte Chamber and the Charlotte Regional Partnership.

I met days later with a key organizer, Central Piedmont Community College President Anthony Zeiss, at his office. When I asked about the origin of the group, he mentioned a long-ago Rotary Club meeting and a conversation he had with retired Superior Court Judge Chase Saunders.

Norfolk Southern’s intermodal shipping facility at Charlotte Douglas International Airport is a really big deal, he recalled Saunders saying. It can springboard Charlotte to a major role on the global economic stage as the Panama Canal widening raises the possibility of more big ships coming to East Coast ports.

Joined by urban planner Michael Gallis and John Paul Galles, publisher of Greater Charlotte Biz magazine, they set out to start a communitywide discussion around the need for Charlotte to develop a global competitiveness strategy.

They went to the big banks, to the Charlotte Chamber, to city hall, to area colleges, and found receptive audiences.

Said Zeiss: “We decided after talking to many many people that we really need to be the best at creating things, as in entrepreneurialism, innovation, that sort of thing. Making things – advanced manufacturing. And moving things – intermodal, transportation, logistics. And (we need to) build on the great assets we already have, in energy, finance and healthcare, and to a lesser extent education.”

Saunders also stopped by the Observer separately to share the vision with editors. He put it in context by tracing Charlotte’s economic history from its beginnings as a humble 18th century trading path intersection to today. He outlined four boom-bust cycles – the 1800s gold rush, Charlotte’s time as a military base headquarters in the early 20th century, then as a textile capital at mid-century, and as a banking center in the 1980s onward.

Now, he said, the intermodal yard could help produce the fifth boom cycle – Charlotte as a global center for creating, making and moving products.

To continue focusing attention on that vision, local leaders will hold their third global competitiveness summit on March 13. Zeiss says making Charlotte a global player is not just a job for the city or the big banks. Ideally, the group would like to see every company or industry association add global competitiveness to its strategic plan, as well as maximize its use of the intermodal hub and work with schools and colleges on workforce development.

When I asked Zeiss what he hopes will come of all this, he answered simply: “I hope it results in the next great economic boom for the Charlotte region, that anyone who wants a job and is willing to get the skills can get a good job with good compensation to support themselves and their families.”

Sounds like a goal we all can get behind.

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