Region still has innovative thinkers, report authors say

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Elizabeth G. Cook
CONCORD ó Innovative leadership helped the Charlotte region grow into a prosperous banking center in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The region still has such original thinkers ó one at Duke Energy and another at the N.C. Research Campus ó but they don’t get the respect they deserve.
So say Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson, co-authors of the 2008 Citistates Report, “Green, Great and Global,” that focused on growth in the 14-county region around Charlotte ó including Rowan and Cabarrus counties.
Peirce and Johnson spoke Thursday at the Citistates Regional Forum, the last of three such events held in the region to discuss their conclusions and trigger community debate.
Held at the Cabarrus Arena, the forum also touched on growth in the Yadkin River basin and Salisbury’s fiber-to-home initiative.
Johnson and Peirce worked together on a similar report on the region in 1995. At that time, Johnson said, Hugh McColl was a leading figure, engineering a banking colossus and lobbying to change regulations so banks could spread across state lines. McColl was treated with well-deserved reverence, Johnson said.
Now the region has two equally important leaders, he said ó David Murdock at the N.C. Research Campus and Jim Rogers at Duke Energy ó but they don’t get the same reverence that McColl enjoyed. And Rogers seems to get mostly contempt, at least in the regulatory realm.
“Talk about prophets not getting honor in their home land,” Johnson said during a journalists’ roundtable earlier in the day.
Murdock has achieved something unprecedented, Johnson said at the forum ó assembling several great universities in one place committed toward one goal, biotechnology.
In what he called “an unnatural act” in the world of academia, Johnson said the universities are interacting and sharing resources.
“You can’t underestimate what kind of impact that will have,” Johnson said.
Peirce also referred to the “amazing Kannapolis metamorphosis.”
As for Rogers, Johnson said the Duke Energy president and CEO is trying to change the company’s business model in a way that would diversify its sources ó incorporating solar and wind power, for example ó and decrease demand for electricity, all of which would be good for the environment. But Rogers can’t get anywhere with the state utilities commission in either of the Carolinas, Johnson said. They insist on sticking with the old model, requiring the company to use the cheapest fuel possible, coal, and refusing to reward efforts at energy diversification or conservation, he said. Regulators seem to expect Duke to innovate at its own expense, ignoring the company’s need to make a profit, he said.
The region has enjoyed low energy prices for a long time.
“Power is just never going to be that cheap again,” Johnson said.
Consumers are going to pay a higher price, he said ó they can do that in a way that repositions the company to be successful or they can be stuck with the old model.
“This could be a region that leads the United States,” Johnson said. Energy conservation is not just a moral virtue, he said, but also an economic necessity.
Later in the forum, panel members discussed what might be the next big thing for the region, now that banking has been taken down a notch.
Grace Mynatt, vice chair of the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners, said she had just come from the Research Campus, where a $1 million gift toward MS research was announced. The research campus will trigger tremendous growth for Kannapolis, Cabarrus and the surrounding area, she said. “The seed is there,” she said.
Speakers also talked about diversifying the economy. “Maybe the next big thing doesn’t need to be so big,” said Bill McCoy, former leader of the Urban Institute and moderator of the panel. But Kannapolis’ shift from textile smokestacks to biotechnology research is historic. “That effort has to be one of the bright lights,” McCoy said. He asked panelists what the possible spinoffs might be.
Jonathan Marshall, Cabarrus County’s director of commerce, said the campus’ greatest asset is its intellectual infrastructure, and the area must ramp up education levels for this new economy.
Johnson also commented on the campus’ brain power. Two or three people working toward a goal can’t get far, he said, but if you assemble multiple people and put them in a “civic Cuisinart,” all the parts blend together and bring good results, he said. The result is “nothing we could have done on our own.”
Other points made during the forum:
– Growth boundaries: Both Mynatt and Marshall talked about Cabarrus’ decision to set boundaries on growth, directing it toward existing infrastructure to “better match our growth to our service area,” as Marshall said.
– Immigration: Peirce said the influx of immigrants since 1995 had brought in both highly skilled professionals and less-educated laborers. How the Charlotte region reacts to those new residents will be telling, he said. Can it become a world city region, he asked, or will it maintain a narrow view?
– Recession: The study was conducted about a year ago. Johnson said if he had guessed then that the most profitable company in the region would be Family Dollar, everyone would have laughed, but that is the case. The economic downturn, he said, creates “an even more pressing need to reboot your growth strategy.”
– Public transit: Charlotte’s successful venture into light rail was mentioned several times. Peirce and Johnson said it was essential that leaders keep pushing to connect the region’s cities with transit.
– Agriculture and open space: Jeff Michael, head of the Urban Institute that sponsored the forum, said the need to save energy did not match up with the American system of food distribution, which ships food across the country.
The Citistates report urges leaders to direct growth close to cities, transit lines and infrastructure. Michael talked about “saving land for agriculture and not making a subdivision the final product of that land.”
– Sharing the wealth: Lindsey Dunevant, a Stanly County commissioner, said Stanly, which leads the region in per capita water use, needs to learn to conserve. And Charlotte needs to realize it doesn’t have the resources it needs ó primarily water ó and push development toward the Yadkin River Basin, which has a good water supply.
Dunevant also said towns need to think creatively, and he commended Salisbury for expanding local broadband technology to help small business and enable more people to work close to home.