With Talk of High-Speed Rail and Spilled Beer, Fall Conference Speakers Engage NCEDA Members

With Talk of High-Speed Rail and Spilled Beer, Fall Conference Speakers Engage NCEDA Members

Dynamic program topics, fine food and valuable opportunities for network-building were among the benefits enjoyed by over 300 NCEDA members and guests at the organization’s 2019 Fall Conference, held October 29-30 at the Renaissance Downtown Asheville.


Among those addressing the gathering was Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland, who spoke of recent developments in business, policy and the economy. “North Carolina has been disproportionately impacted by the trade war,” Copeland said. “Trade is a huge part of our Gross State Product,” which now is slightly larger than that of Sweden, he said. “That puts us in an incredible position around the globe.” Copeland, who worked as a location adviser prior to becoming Secretary in early 2017, noted the richly quantitative and transactional nature of site selection today. “It’s all being driven by consultants with MBAs and JDs,” he said. “It’s all hard science now.” Copeland encouraged members to listen, learn and participate in current statewide discussions about Medicaid expansion. “Many of the rural hospitals are closing or on life support,” Copeland said. “Medicaid expansion would help them out.”


Only 39% of North Carolina elementary students are reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade, according to Lisa Finaldi, Community Engagement Leader at the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation. Finaldi presented an overview of her organization’s Family Forward Initiative, which works with employers to promote family-friendly workplace policies and programs such as consortium childcare, on-site health centers and wellness benefits. Third-grade reading proficiency has become a reliable indicator of future career success, Finaldi explained. “Families have changed in America, but most employers haven’t,” she said. “Families need support at home and in the workplace.” At a time of workforce shortages, the focus can have a major impact. “We’ve been working with businesses across the state to take the lead on this issue,” Finaldi told NCEDA members.


Julie White, Deputy Secretary for Multi-Modal Transportation at the NC Department of Transportation, reviewed a long list of DOT initiatives designed to support the state’s economic development. Among new programs is an Airport Economic Development Fund, which assists general aviation airports in meeting the growing, changing needs of North Carolina companies. “It’s about job creation,” she said. “We’re doing really good work with this fund.” State transportation leaders hope to join CSX officials and economic developers by October 2020 in cutting the ribbon on the Carolina Connector (CCX), the major multi-modal terminal now under construction in Rocky Mount. “It’s going to be a significant project for the entire state,” said White, who was Executive Director of the NC Metropolitan Mayors Council prior to being named to her current position. Other rail initiatives include efforts to develop high-speed passenger service through the state. “We have an unbelievably great railroad system here,” she said. Officials are eyeing CSX’s “S Line,” which runs border-to-border through Raleigh. “In addition to high-speed rail, we could overlay commuter rail on it.”


As home to the National Center for Environmental Information, Asheville is now at the heart of a growing technology cluster that helps people make decisions based on climate. Jeff Hicks, CEO and Resilience Analytics Lead at Fernleaf Interactive in Asheville, presented an overview on both the challenges and opportunities North Carolina faces due to climate-related risks. “The reality that we’re facing nationally and in North Carolina is an enormous amount of growth but also an increase in billion-dollar disasters,” Hicks said. Resilience issues have found their way onto the radar screens of credit ratings agencies, which are now downgrading the bond ratings of communities that fail to take the proper precautions. The private sector, too, is feeling the bite. About half of Hurricane Florence’s $17 billion impact in North Carolina was suffered by businesses, he said. Storms are not the only disruptions that apply. Droughts, wildfires, rising sea-levels and high temperatures enhance the threat. Advanced planning is key to addressing the challenge. “We put a lot of resources into responding after the event happens,” Hicks said. “Resilience is about what we can do now.” He recommends NCEDA members visit toolkit.climate.gov to learn more. “Economic developers are the champions for making North Carolina a great place, but have you quantified the risks your communities face?”


Capping off the program was a 45-minute panel entitled “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Deal.” Veteran economic developers Clark Duncan, Joanna Helms and George Sherrill recounted amusing – though at the time serious – incidents impacting projects, clients and opportunities. NCEDA Past President Donny Hicks moderated the panel, adding his own experiences. Participants related how Botswanan diamonds, errant corn stalks, fighter jets and spilled beer had factored into their careers at key moments. LeeAnn Nixon, President of the Wilkes Economic Development Corporation, said the panel put the ideal finishing touch on the morning’s program. “What a great way to wrap up the conference!” Nixon said. “While our work is serious business, economic developers certainly know how to enjoy the journey and laugh along the way.”