NC commerce secretary expects Japan trip to bring jobs

N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker on Monday said that she expects her recent trip to Japan will lead to companies bringing new jobs to the state in the next year and a half.

Decker’s visit centered on an annual conference that promotes trade between the Asian country and the Southeastern U.S. She said she learned more about previously known projects and one potential new one.

“There are a number of the conversations that hold the potential for announcements,” Decker told reporters at a news conference at the Charlotte Chamber’s office. She didn’t identify any of the prospects.

The commerce secretary is eyeing jobs from a country that already has a significant stake in the state. Since 2010, North Carolina has landed $982 million in investments and more than 3,000 jobs from Japan.

Decker’s department is particularly focused on landing automobile manufacturing plants, major prizes in the economic development world because they also attract suppliers and logistics companies.

Despite years of trying, North Carolina hasn’t been able to score a factory, even as neighbors such as Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina have won plants. The state is now pitching three large potential sites, in Siler City, in the town of Liberty and near Rocky Mount.

“We are in multiple conversations right now, and I feel very good about the prospects,” said Decker, while noting it would be a long-term process.

Earlier this year, North Carolina was prepared to offer Toyota up to $107 million worth of incentives to lure the automaker’s North American headquarters to Charlotte, documents obtained by the Observer showed. But in April, the state lost out to Texas, which offered less money but benefited from other factors, such as direct flights to Japan.

After returning from a 36-hour trip that could have taken 12 to 14 hours with just one leg, Decker said she’s particularly motivated to land a direct flight to Asia for North Carolina. Decker said Gov. Pat McCrory has a study underway on the aviation industry that will look at the issue, and she plans to bring it up in an upcoming meeting with American Airlines officials on a variety of topics, she said.

American and US Airways merged into the world’s largest airline in December. Its hub at Charlotte Douglas International Airport is the airline’s second-busiest among nine hubs, with more than 650 daily American departures.

Another challenge for Decker is the state’s Job Development Investment Grant program: It’s nearing a cap on potential awards to companies promising new jobs.

“I would say it is creating a lot more conversation,” she said. “Folks want to know that if they come in there is opportunity for the Job Development Investment Grant.”

The state is still talking to companies and has other tools to work with, Decker said.

McCrory has declined to call a special session so the General Assembly could address the potential shortfall. But Decker said the governor has made it clear he would recall lawmakers if a significant opportunity develops.

“We are working under that expectation right now,” she said, adding that her department plans to pursue additional changes to incentives programs in next year’s long session.

In addition to her role as Commerce Secretary, Decker is a board member at Matthews-based Family Dollar Stores, which is pursuing a merger with Dollar Tree while fending off a hostile offer from rival Dollar General. Some corporate governance experts have seen the dual roles as a potential conflict of interest, but Decker has said she can balance the two positions.

“I have not recused myself to this point,” Decker said.

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