Regional Partnership at 25: Technological changes, political challenges

Ronnie L. Bryant, President & Chief Executive officer, Charlotte Regional Partnership address the attendees at the Jerry Awards luncheon at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Ronnie L. Bryant, President & Chief Executive officer, Charlotte Regional Partnership address the attendees at the Jerry Awards luncheon at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

From Ronnie Bryant’s windows in his seventh floor corner office at the NASCAR Plaza tower, the head of the Charlotte Regional Partnership can see cranes pulling new offices and hotels into shape across uptown.

It’s his job to help fill those with new companies and visitors, as well as attracting businesses to the counties surrounding Charlotte. As the economic development group marks its 25th anniversary this year, Bryant said it’s a job that’s changing rapidly due to technology.

“I still believe the personal relationship is important,” said Bryant in an interview with the Observer. “There are enough old guys in the business that it’s worth it to still sit and go eyeball-to-eyeball.”

On Wednesday, the CRP held its annual awards luncheon to honor the recipients of its Jerry Awards – Speedway Motorsports and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association – and celebrate reaching the quarter century mark.

The group, which employs about a dozen people, was founded in 1991 by local business leaders including John Belk, Ed Crutchfield, James Hynes, Stuart Dickson, Bill Lee and Hugh McColl. Their goal was to create unified marketing and promotion for the Charlotte region.

The organization introduced the “Charlotte USA” brand in 2000, and the Charlotte Regional Partnership now represents 16 counties, including four in upstate South Carolina.

“They understood that in order for Charlotte to get the kind of attention it needed, it needed to expand its footprint,” said Bryant.

Now, the CRP faces new challenges, including state politics and funding.

On Tuesday, PayPal announced it was canceling plans to bring 400 new jobs to Charlotte because of a new law passed last month by the N.C. General Assembly limiting protections for LGBT individuals. The law was passed in response to a controversial nondiscrimination ordinance enacted by the Charlotte City Council, which would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify and enacted broader protections for LGBT people.

Companies such as Apple, Bank of America and American Airlines have said they oppose the state law, and at the awards luncheon Wednesday, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts told the crowd of hundreds that the measure could hurt efforts to lure companies.

“We are facing an economic development challenge,” Roberts said. “We are better than this, and we’re stronger together.”

In its tax filing for the year ended June 30, 2014, the group posted a deficit of $275,194. That compares with a deficit of $3,322 a year earlier. The increase in red ink was driven mostly by a drop in contributions from the state of North Carolina. The organization lost funds when the state shifted money away from regional partnerships to the newly created Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

The partnership has said it expects a surplus of about $81,000 for 2015.

The CRP is also working through the details of an agreement reached last year with the Charlotte Chamber about how to more effectively share resources and split recruitment duties. The two organizations have sometimes overlapped and are exploring joint fundraising.

One of the biggest changes over the past decades in recruiting companies has been technology. With more information about the region available online and more ways to connect with clients than just on the phone or in person, Bryant said the CRP has had to change its approach.

“In some cases, we’re still getting on airplanes, but in some cases social media plays a much stronger role,” Bryant said. “It’s become a much more data-driven business. It’s become much more of a push of information, instead of them pulling it. By the time a client shows up on our doorstep … they know you. The information is out there.”

Bryant said the timeframe for prospective corporate relocations has shortened from when he was named head of the partnership more than a decade ago.

“By the time they get the green light, it’s pedal-to-the-metal,” he said. “They want the building right now.”

“I can remember an earlier time, the client would come to town, spend three or four days, go to a zoning meeting. They don’t do that any more,” he said. “If the site’s not zoned, they don’t want to see it. … Taking someone out and showing them woods, saying just imagine what you can do here – those days are over.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

2016 Jerry Awards announced

The Charlotte Regional Partnership honored the winners of this year’s Jerry Awards at its luncheon Wednesday. The awards are named for Jerry Orr, former Charlotte Douglas International Airport director, and Jerry Richardson, founder of the Carolina Panthers.

The awards this year were given to two local organizations, Speedway Motorsports Inc. and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Both were honored for their role in bringing major events and hundreds of thousands of visitors to Charlotte. Based in Concord, SMI operates eight race tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway. Headquartered in Charlotte, the CIAA conference of historically black colleges and universities hosts its annual tournament in the city.