Business

This new group could spend $1 million to promote Charlotte and lure more businesses

Ronnie Bryant, president and CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, center, greets attendees at the Amazon HQ2 Media Event at the UNC Charlotte Center City building last year. The chamber and regional partnership announced Tuesday the appointment of a transition director as the two organizations prepare to merge.
Ronnie Bryant, president and CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, center, greets attendees at the Amazon HQ2 Media Event at the UNC Charlotte Center City building last year. The chamber and regional partnership announced Tuesday the appointment of a transition director as the two organizations prepare to merge. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Combining the Charlotte Chamber and the Charlotte Regional Partnership should save $1 million a year and generate funding for a major new marketing campaign to promote the region, a business leader told Mecklenburg County commissioners Tuesday.

The combined group — which is being called “NewCo” until a new name is chosen — will streamline the region’s efforts to lure new companies, reduce fundraising conflicts and cut down on duplicated efforts.

“It’s confusing. It’s confusing to us and it’s confusing to the people who bring us leads,” Ned Curran, past chairman of the Charlotte Chamber, said of the current setup. He’s part of an ad hoc committee that’s figuring out how to merge the groups by year’s end. “There’s competition for revenue. The leaders of both organizations are calling on the same people.”

Curran said that combining the groups will strengthen Charlotte’s efforts to recruit businesses. The area has suffered two headquarters losses recently, with the announced closure of Family Dollar’s headquarters in Matthews earlier this month, and Babcock & Wilcox’s departure this week.

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The merger will eliminate two longstanding business groups in Charlotte and the surrounding counties. Plenty of questions remain, such as who will lead the combined group, whether all the counties around Charlotte will agree to the shift and how the combined group will balance Charlotte’s interests against those of the wider region.

County commissioners were mostly supportive of the plan Tuesday, though some had questions about how much it would cost.

“I would want to know beforehand, what would that look like and what are we getting for our money if we support this?” asked Trevor Fuller.

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Charlotte’s presentation to Amazon presented on the screen at the Amazon HQ2 Media Event at the UNC Charlotte Center City building last year. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

The city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County provide a sizable chunk of the partnership’s funding, $158,250 each. Curran said combining the organizations will cost about $1 million upfront, but they’ll ultimately save about $1 million per year.

That’s from reduced overhead, like only having one CEO. Charlotte Chamber CEO Bob Morgan was paid almost $469,000 in 2016, the most recent year available, while partnership CEO Ronnie Bryant made almost $342,000. The combined group will move to the Charlotte Chamber’s building on Tryon Street, which will save about $300,000 per year in office costs paid by the Charlotte Regional Partnership for its NASCAR Plaza space.

Several studies in recent years have suggested combining the groups, which sometimes overlap when recruiting new businesses.

But they also have key differences. The Charlotte Regional Partnership represents Mecklenburg County, along with 10 surrounding counties in North Carolina (Union County suspended its membership in the group earlier this year) and four in upstate South Carolina. The Charlotte Chamber is focused exclusively on businesses in the city.

The Charlotte Regional Partnership led the failed bid for Amazon’s second headquarters last year, in which the region didn’t make the cut for 20 finalist cities.

Curran said the combined group will follow the Charlotte Regional Partnership’s approach of generating interest and identifying businesses that might look to grow in the region.

“This is not going to be the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce,” he said. At the same time, the combined group will also take on some of the Charlotte-centric roles overseen traditionally overseen by the chamber, such as promoting the city’s bonds and lobbying for voters to approve them.

But the new group will also focus on lobbying efforts for the whole region, not just Charlotte, on issues like transportation. Curran said a $1 million marketing and branding campaign to promote “Charlotte, USA,” as the Charlotte Regional Partnership brands the area, should be undertaken. Up until now, spending on such efforts has been “nominal,” especially compared to peer cities, Curran said.

The Chamber and Partnership have an aggressive timeline. They’re planning to merge and start operations as a new entity by Jan. 1, with a yet-to-be determined name. A CEO for the new group is expected to be picked by early 2019, after a nationwide search. Morgan, the chamber CEO, has indicated he’s interested. Curran said Bryant has told him he won’t be applying.

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