Selling Charlotte: New economic development director touts city

Bill Cronin is a well-practiced salesman, and he’s ready to sell his newest product: Charlotte.

Two weeks into his new job as the city’s economic development director, Cronin is still perfecting his pronunciation of “Charlottean.” But he’s talking up the city’s growing economy, financial services cluster, booming construction and increasing population, as he settles into his job of persuading companies to relocate or expand in Charlotte.

“We’ve got a good product,” said Cronin, in his third-floor office at the old city hall building on East Trade Street. From his windows, he can see several cranes adding to the city’s skyline – more evidence that building is back in Charlotte.

“That should be my goal every day, to come in and see cranes,” Cronin said.

He’s a veteran economic developer who’s held posts in Atlanta, South Carolina and Florida. Cronin faces a shifting landscape in which North Carolina is trying to change its incentives program, launch a public-private partnership to take over recruiting duties for the state and fend off fierce competition, especially from South Carolina.

Cronin said he views his job as helping to create a desirable city for companies to move, and pitching them Charlotte’s story. Still, Cronin said: “You can’t make business go somewhere. They go where they want to go.”

“Companies move for two reasons,” Cronin said. “They either are hurting somewhere else and they’re trying to escape that and cut their losses, or they’re moving because they want to make more money.”

After a stint in the shipping industry, Cronin joined Florida’s public-private partnership for economic development in 1997.

In 2007, he joined the S.C. Department of Commerce as director of the global business development division, and in 2011 Cronin went to Atlanta. He was vice president of Invest Atlanta, a public-private partnership, overseeing business development efforts. Cronin joined the American Red Cross chapter based in Columbia as executive director in July 2013.

In Atlanta, Cronin helped persuade Porsche to keep its North American headquarters in the city and build a new campus, as well as AthenaHealth’s expansion into the historic Sears & Roebuck building downtown.

Cronin’s predecessor, Brad Richardson, left in July for a job in the private sector. Cronin will be paid a $115,000 salary. He said that while tax breaks and other incentives are important to luring companies, they’re too widely used sometimes.

“It used to be that incentives were used to kind of level the playing field” if two competing sites were equal except for one factor, such as a major infrastructure need, Cronin said. “Now, you’ve got communities out there that will deploy incentives at the drop of a hat and it forces everybody to get into that game.”

Cronin said Charlotte and North Carolina won’t match every incentive package – but they shouldn’t feel pressured to do so.

“It’s not our job to just necessarily respond because a competitor is offering something,” Cronin said. Instead, he plans to focus on promoting Charlotte’s attributes, such as its workforce and logistics hub.

Such incentives deals have played a role in drawing major companies to Charlotte. Sealed Air Corp. said in July it would move its headquarters to Charlotte from New Jersey, bringing more than 1,200 jobs. State and local incentives total about $43 million for the project.

And banana giant Chiquita Brands International announced in 2010 that it would relocate to Charlotte from Cincinnati, promising to bring 400 jobs. But the company’s $22 million worth of incentives are in question after Chiquita’s announcement earlier this year that it will be acquired by two Brazilian firms that haven’t said where its headquarters will be located. One condition of the incentives package was for Chiquita to keep its global headquarters in Charlotte for 10 years.

Cronin said it’s too soon to say what will happen with Chiquita’s incentives and that more discussions are needed.

Even though the bottom line – and incentives – are important, Cronin said economic development requires a personal touch and old-fashioned, face-to-face salesmanship.

“You can’t just show up and say, ‘Here’s our package, take it or leave it,’ ” Cronin said. He recalled a time working in South Carolina when a company told him it was trying to decide where to relocate: Charleston or Kentucky. Cronin paid an executive a visit.

“You sit in the guy’s office, and he’s got pictures of sailboats all over the place,” Cronin said. “Well, we knew why he wanted to be in Charleston. Those types of things will surface, if you talk to them.”