Development

Study concludes Charlotte needs to attract more R&D, innovation

James Elrod, a machinist with Siemens, works on a turbine component in 2014. In 2014, 14 percent of Charlotte’s gross domestic product was made up of exports, the highest among a range of 10 U.S. peer cities. That’s driven in part by advanced manufacturing, such as Siemens’ gas turbine operation
James Elrod, a machinist with Siemens, works on a turbine component in 2014. In 2014, 14 percent of Charlotte’s gross domestic product was made up of exports, the highest among a range of 10 U.S. peer cities. That’s driven in part by advanced manufacturing, such as Siemens’ gas turbine operation jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte’s fast growth and global connectivity help the region stand out among peer cities, but we’re lagging in research and development and innovation-focused companies.

That’s the conclusion of a study by the Brookings Institution, designed to measure the Charlotte region against similarly sized cities and gauge the region’s competitiveness.

“Greater Charlotte, if you’re looking at a global perspective, has integrated its economy quite significantly in global markets,” said Joseph Parilla, an analyst with Brookings who prepared the report on behalf of Central Piedmont Community College. “The share of its GDP devoted to export is quite high.”

In 2014, 14 percent of Charlotte’s gross domestic product was made up of exports, the highest among a range of 10 U.S. peer cities, including Dallas, Cleveland, Austin, Atlanta and Denver. That’s driven by advanced manufacturing, such as Siemens’ gas turbine operation, and by financial services.

“The jobs that are in these types of firms tend to pay better,” said Parilla. He presented the findings Wednesday morning at CPCC’s annual Global Competitiveness Summit.

But where Charlotte lags, Parilla said, is in having a top research university and the patents, research and development and startups that power innovation. That is going to become more important, Parilla said, as the region’s traditional industries such as financial services become increasingly dependent on technology.

“The region has to really, really focus on those. It has to build up its innovation ecosystem,” said Parilla. “Things like financial services are starting to be disrupted by these new entrants.”

Among a peer group of cities, Charlotte was second-to-last in research and development conducted at universities, as a percentage of GDP, ahead of only Kansas City. And the city was third-to-last in how many patents it produced per 10,000 residents, ahead of just Kansas City and San Antonio.

Parilla said Charlotte has done well without a university considered a top research school, or a major medical school. But he said regional leaders should think about ways to build up those assets in Charlotte to stay competitive.

“Most of that capacity in the state of North Carolina is in other parts of the state,” said Parilla. “It’s definitely something regional leaders need to think about.”

Economic development officials at the presentation said they agreed with the major findings.

“The data’s right on the mark,” said Ronnie Bryant, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership. “We definitely have some work to do.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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