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Other voices: One city’s struggles

Fayetteville Observer

It’s the kind of announcement we’ve heard a lot lately, albeit bigger than most. Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical company, will invest $1.85 billion in a new plant in Clayton.

It will create nearly 700 new jobs, with the average salary more than $68,000 — double the average in Johnston County. It’s the second plant in Clayton for the company that is the world’s largest insulin maker.

Why there and not somewhere else? Novo Nordisk officials cited the state and local incentives — which are some of the largest ever given in North Carolina — but also pointed to the quality and stability of the local workforce.

Meanwhile, the biggest economic-development news in Cumberland County in the past year was about angry Cedar Creek neighbors chasing a proposed chicken-processing plant out of Fayetteville and into Robeson County, where St. Pauls welcomed it.

Why does the Triangle — and the Raleigh metro area — keep getting richer while we stand still? There may be some hints in a ranking that Forbes, the business magazine, published last month, citing the best places for business and careers in the U.S. A lot of North Carolina locations ranked pretty high on Forbes’ list. We didn’t.

Raleigh ranked No. 2 in the country. Asheville came in at No. 12. Charlotte was 14th. Durham was 20th. Wilmington 35th. Greensboro 40th. Winston-Salem 78th.

And Fayetteville? Forbes put us at No. 182. In North Carolina, only Hickory ranked lower, at No. 191.

It wasn’t about the cost of doing business. We beat Raleigh in that category, 24th in the country vs. Raleigh’s 28th. …

But it could be education. Raleigh ranks 12th in the country in that category. Fayetteville ranks 164th. The Durham metro area, which includes Chapel Hill, is ninth in the nation in education. And it’s also home of the Research Triangle Park.

How do we compete with that? Or how do we compete with the mountains and laid-back amenities of a place like Asheville?

Right now, we can’t. But the first thing we’ve got to do is decide if we want to compete. We’ve heard, over the years, too many people saying things like “Fayetteville is what it is,” and “Fayetteville’s a military town, and it’s never going to be anything else.” Is that true? Does it have to be that way? Of course not. When someone mentions Tacoma, Washington, do we think military first? When we hear about San Diego, California, do we think military first? No, we don’t. Yet in both those cities, the military is far and away the biggest economic driver. … But both cities have diversified and are home to high-tech and creative businesses that broaden the culture and give the economy resilience against abrupt swings in Defense Department budgets.

Fayetteville could achieve that too, if the city chooses. But it will require serious investment. We’ve already chosen to make that investment in the battle against crime, expanding the Police Department and giving it better tools. A parks and recreation bond proposal is on the horizon, raising money to add parks, pools, athletic facilities and more. And we need to continue expanding our arts and entertainment district. Those are essential actions if we’re going to compete with this state’s cities that are higher on the Forbes list.

So is creating a better-educated workforce. We have the tools to do that, too — a steadily improving public-school system, two good universities and one of the best technical community colleges in the state. But those schools will continue to export their best and brightest graduates to our competitor cities until we bring more and better industrial development here.

But first, we need to decide: Will we invest in ourselves and our city? Will we put our money where our mouth is?

If we do, we can prosper. If we don’t, “Fayetteville is what it is” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.



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