Editorial: Instead of blaming SC …

Published 3:27 pm Sunday, January 31, 2016

Kannapolis Mayor Darrell Hinnant opened the floor for questions last Wednesday after he spoke at a Salisbury City Council luncheon. As business leaders and others drilled down on economic development, it appeared another civil war might break out between North and South —  the Carolinas, that is.

South Carolina wasn’t present to defend itself, but a former South Carolinian did a good job of turning the focus back on North Carolina.

Hinnant rightfully pointed out that several big economic development projects — Volvo and Boeing plants among them — have landed in South Carolina thanks at least in part to Gov. Nikki Haley’s ability to award hefty incentives. “South Carolina has a big checkbook,” he said.

When Gordon Food Services looked at a possible Kannapolis site for a $58 million distribution center a couple of years ago, the city had already lost four big prospects to South Carolina, Hinnant said. Kannapolis leaders vowed not to lose this time. They put together a package of $3.8 million in local incentives (over 20 years) and state funds for road access. Earlier this month Gordon Foods held its grand opening in Afton Ridge Business Park; it plans to employ 270 people within five years.

To have more successes like that, Hinnant suggested, the state is going to have to step up to the negotiating table with more and bigger incentives. North Carolina is not in the game, he said. The “group in Raleigh,” as he called lawmakers, believes the secret of the sauce is to cut and minimize. “Unless you speak up, nothing’s going to change,” Hinnant said.

Several people chimed in on that issue, which segued into a discussion about schools and community colleges.

Dr. Colleen Keith, the new president of Pfeiffer College, spoke up. Keith came to Pfeiffer last summer from Spartanburg Methodist College in South Carolina and knows a good bit about the state. The reasons why South Carolina recruits so well go beyond incentives, she said. The collaboration among agencies and across boundaries makes all the difference, she said. Each community knows that if its neighbor wins a new prospect, their community will enjoy the spillover effect of that growth, so they work together.

Collaboration is key. And Keith hit home one more point:

The way you beat South Carolina is workforce, she said. The winner will be the state that nurtures high-quality schools, pays teachers well and instills an ethic of earning post-secondary credentials in its citizens, she said. If you’re striving to be a knowledge economy, people have to get training or education beyond high school. “It starts at birth,” she said. “Workforce is going to be the No. 1 issue.”

It’s OK to envy Nikki Haley’s checkbook; increasing North Carolina’s incentives might be the easier course of action. To be really effective at drawing the best companies, though, North Carolina needs laser-like focus on improving education and training. In this legislative climate, that is by far the tougher task.