I’ve heard many opinions about how to create jobs and how Fayetteville is barely shuffling along and only creating “fast food” jobs; now if the hard-hearted politicians would only fund this program or that program, we’d solve poverty and create jobs for everyone. Well, if the solutions were that simple, we’d have implemented them by now. Perhaps the real answer isn’t that easy. This article is an attempt to share my conversations and experiences over the last five years as a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives and to point toward possible answers. Just to be clear, my opinions are not based on just one conversation. I’ve spoken with scores of outof-county and out-of-state businesses, and they all echo similar sentiments.
Step one: Let’s agree that the real answer isn’t easy. If you don’t agree, stop reading here.
Step two: What are companies really looking for? There are hundreds of studies that try to answer this question by evaluating municipalities and regions against one other to come up with some magical ranking. When we’re near the top of the list, we congratulate ourselves, and when we’re near the bottom of the list, we blame one another for the perceived failings. These lists may be fine as a general guide, but they do not hold universal answers for municipalities and regions across the country.
Last year, I had a discussion with the vice president of Apple, who was in charge of selecting new expansion locations. The decision boiled down to one issue – the bottom line. Apple considers where it can make the most money. This is the spirit that continues to make America great: satisfy customer demand, provide new and innovative products and services, keep operating costs low and sell products and services at a profit to grow your business.
So, what goes into the cost of doing business? Here’s what I’m continually told is near the top of companies’ concerns.
• State business taxes. We’re competitive in this area. Our corporate tax is at 3 percent and going lower. When you compare our tax rates to those of other states, compare apples to apples, no pun intended. This year, when we were trying to land Project Zeus, a $240 million potential investment in our county, the Legislature quickly changed a section of the Mill Machinery tax to make us competitive with other states. The Cumberland County Business Park was one of the final two sites on the East Coast under consideration, thanks to this change and the cooperation of the city of Fayetteville and Cumberland County.
• Cost of land/buildings/facilities. Rural land is less expensive than land inside the city limits. We’re competitive in both the county and the city.
• Access to a trained workforce. We come in OK in this area for many industries not needing advanced college degrees. For those of you who continue to ask the question why we can’t attract high-tech pharmaceutical companies in Cumberland County, the answer is we just don’t have the job skills those companies are looking for. It would take decades to grow that base. For industries that require workers trained in specific skills – for example, special manufacturing processes or specialized computer skills (think cybersecurity) – our community college system is ready, willing, able and funded to set up whatever worker training is required.
• Ease of hooking into utilities. Here, we fall short. Again, this is what companies are saying, not my opinion. If you remember back to the city of Fayetteville/PWC debate of just a few years ago, you’ll recall that an early version of the bill allowed the PWC to extend water and sewer into the county without being required to request “voluntary annexation.” One of the reasons that section was inserted into the bill was because 13 different companies over a two-year period did NOT select Cumberland County to build small manufacturing facilities (20 to 100+ employees) in the county because they didn’t want to pay city taxes and conform to city codes. The final bill “solved” the water issue, but not the sewer issue.
• Ease of doing business. Time is money. I’ve heard from companies that have locations statewide, and almost every one complained that dealing with the city and county are some of the worst experiences they have had. Both the city of Fayetteville and Cumberland County have come a long way in addressing this issue, but neither is competitive amongst their highest-performing peers.
Step Three: We need a brand. I ask people outside of our community how they would define Fayetteville and Cumberland County. I usually get blank stares or some mumbled response about Fayettenam. That’s a real problem. We need to define ourselves. But, before we can do that, we should be able to recognize and celebrate the economic development our community has achieved lately. If we’ve done something well, shouldn’t we tell that story?
Case in point: What’s the most significant economic development project with the highest number of well-paying jobs that has occurred in Cumberland County in the last five years? The answer is the new residency program at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, which began earlier this year. In the next three years, this program will generate 300 resident doctors, about 50 teacher, mentor and support positions and an additional 300 associated jobs. That’s at least 650 wellpaying jobs with the upside potential of increasing to over 900 jobs. This equates to a minimum new payroll of $30 million a year. This doesn’t address the increase in quality health care that will benefit the entire region.
So, where does all this fit in with our message to outsiders? We have “Visit Freedom’s Home,” promoted by the Fayetteville Area Convention and Business Bureau. “Building a prosperous and resilient community through business leadership,” from the Greater Fayetteville Chamber. The Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation highlights opportunities in defense, food, manufacturing, business and financial services and logistics on its webpage. How about the “History, Heroes and a Hometown Feeling,” signage at the entryways to the city? I understand that each of these organizations has a unique mission, yet, I have been unable to find any unifying theme among the various groups. While these are all positive messages, they are unrelated and disconnected.
Our community needs a unified message. We need to have a positive, accurate, realistic discussion regarding what we can do together to tell our story better and make our economic marketing message efforts more effective. I’m encouraged that there are some people and organizations in the community who share this view and are already coming together.
Whatever the results of these efforts, the message needs to be more than an empty slogan. Every business, organization and elected official needs to be able to explain the “mission” and “buying proposition” to everyone they meet, particularly the media. If the media hears it often enough, we will see more positive headlines about our community rather than stories and reports about how our crime rate is increasing, who murdered who in what parking lot, what drug deal has gone bad or what political candidate got a speeding ticket 30 years ago.
An overarching brand with a unified message for our community will surely help. But then, we must live up to it. Branding, advertising and marketing alone won’t convince industry and new companies to locate here.
I’ll finish the way I started, by challenging you to think about how we can advance our community both economically and socially. There is no simple answer. Are you willing to join with those who’ve begun an honest assessment of our community and are working toward making Fayetteville and Cumberland County more attractive to business and industry?
Join those of us willing to work.