Charlotte region should look to global trade, officials say

Economic development officials urged Charlotte leaders Wednesday to look towards international businesses and sources of capital to grow the region’s economy, as foreign investors seek to put more money in the U.S.

Chris Chung, CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, said nearly a third of the deals his public-private partnership is trying to attract involve foreign-owned firms.

“Roughly 30 percent of the companies we’re talking to at any time are foreign-owned,” said Chung. He was speaking at a meeting of the Central Piedmont Community College Global Vision Leaders Group, held quarterly.

That can bring opportunities, such as the tire plant Singapore-based Giti is building in Chester County, S.C., that is expected to employ 1,700 when it opens in 2017. But Chung said many foreign companies are looking to acquire North Carolina-based companies rather than open brand-new factories or offices.

Smithfield Foods, which has large hog operations in eastern North Carolina, was acquired in 2013 by a Chinese firm. A Chinese state-owned firm is trying to buy Swiss-owned chemical firm Syngenta, which has its North American headquarters in Greensboro.

“That’s another way foreign capital is going to find its way into North Carolina, whether we like it or not,” said Chung. He was in St. Louis, Missouri Partnership, when Budweiser was bought by Belgian brewing company InBev. “For St. Louis, always the king of beers, that was a huge psychological impact.”

Chung said the EDPNC plans to expand its foreign outreach. The group, which was created to take over economic development functions from the state Commerce Department, recently opened an office in Korea. Chung said India is the next country where they plan to open an office, though a timeline hasn’t been set.

As part of the CPCC Global Vision initiative, the Brookings Institution is studying how Charlotte compares with peer cities. The group will present their final report at a meeting next month, but Joe Parilla shared some of the findings Wednesday.

“This region is already incredibly international,” said Parilla. Compared to 11 peer cities, Charlotte has the highest share of export- and foreign direct investment-related jobs, he said. That’s largely because of the number of German-owned businesses, such as the BMW factory in Spartanburg.

Charlotte’s airport is massive, with 44.9 million annual passengers and a major American Airlines hub. That gives the region global access, but Parilla pointed out that Charlotte Douglas International has the highest share of connecting passengers among comparable airports – meaning many don’t start or stop their trips in Charlotte.

Parilla also said the region lags on some other key measures. For example, Charlotte is third from the bottom among peer cities for the amount of patent activity, a measure of how much innovation and invention occurs here. And Charlotte is in the middle of the pack in terms of the share of its citizens have education beyond high school.

“The race for global talent has never been fiercer,” said Parilla.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo