The new CEO of the Charlotte region’s primary economic development group said the area lacks a brand and that one of her priorities is to help develop one.
Janet LaBar joined the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance in April, after holding a similar position at a regional public-private partnership in Portland, Ore. She becomes the first chief executive and president of the alliance, which was formed last year through a merger of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and the Charlotte Regional Partnership.
Back on the West Coast, nothing came to mind when LaBar heard Charlotte, N.C., she said in an hour-long interview with the Observer this week.
“I think Charlotte doesn’t have a brand,” she said, speaking of the region. “That’s not necessarily, today, good or bad. That just means that’s an opportunity for us to actually create one.”
Her comments come nearly four years after the Chamber visited Nashville, Tenn., on one of the Chamber’s annual trips to another city to study economic development ideas. Nashville is known for its “Music City” brand.
A key focus of that trip was how to best brand the Charlotte region. Attendees noted at the time that the city’s long-running image as a financial services center, for example, doesn’t capture the diversity of its economy.
LaBar echoed those sentiments this week.
“It’s got to be more, and it’s got to be better, than the financial hub of the South,” she said.
The alliance has just hired a new chief communications and marketing officer, who will help with branding work, she said.
Also, next week, the alliance will take a three-day trip to Pittsburgh to examine that city’s infrastructure, business community and economic development approaches, among other things. LaBar will be among alliance and Charlotte-area business leaders on the trip.
Here are highlights from the interview.
On the merger
Plans to merge the Chamber and Partnership came after losses under two organizations that were sometimes viewed as not collaborating enough.
For instance, in a major setback for the region last year, Amazon announced it had not picked Charlotte among cities that had competed for the online retailer’s massive second headquarters. Raleigh, though, did make the list.
Ultimately, Amazon chose northern Virginia for the project.
In announcing the merger, the Chamber and Partnership said the combination would mean one group for businesses to interact with when deciding whether to relocate in, or expand to, the Charlotte area.
“Frankly, we do need to be speaking with one voice,” LaBar said.
“There was clearly a need for efficiency in the work,” she said. “I will just tell you that, at least under my leadership and as long as I’m here, under my tenure we will continue to do this in a regional way.”
It’s taken time for people to adjust to the alliance’s name, but it’s catching on, LaBar said.
“I’ve probably met more than 1,000 people at this point, and less than half of them are still referring to us as the Chamber,” she said. “I get more ‘Chamber’ than I get ‘Partnership.’”
Charlotte has lured some large employers in recent years with the help of state and local incentives that, in some cases, have totaled millions of dollars per company.
Last year, for example, North Carolina approved up to $42.5 million in incentives for manufacturing tech giant Honeywell to relocate its headquarters to Mecklenburg County. The county’s incentives of about $28 million and Charlotte’s $17 million brought the total incentives to more than $87 million.
For her part, LaBar said incentives can play an important role in winning projects for a region.
But “I would say that my philosophy around how we treat a project and try to land a company is really never to lead with incentives,” she said.
“When I think about the types of incentives that have been offered to a lot of the companies that have expanded here, the good news is the companies came here,” she said.
“If you sat down and asked the companies if that’s what did it, I don’t know that they would say absolutely 100 percent it was just that.”
Instead, she said, those companies would probably point to the Charlotte region’s strong workforce or its airport as factors.
On Charlotte’s upward mobility problem
One area of focus for the alliance, LaBar said, is Charlotte’s high-profile problem with upward mobility.
That problem came to light in a 2014 study that examined the odds that poor children in 50 large metro areas have to lift themselves out of poverty.
Charlotte came in last.
Addressing that problem has to be at the core of the alliance’s overall work, LaBar said.
“You can’t just add equity and inclusion or advancement for all as another pillar,” she said.
LaBar said she is interested in recruiting companies and industries that create career paths that could provide better economic opportunities for lower-income people.
The goal would be to have those people earning more than a living wage over a period of, say, five to 10 years, she said.
“If we can do that, imagine the type of impact that we will have had,” she said.
“I’ll know that we’ve actually made somebody’s life better at the end of that.”