By Kevin Maurer
If Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland gets his wish, North Carolina will once again be known as the “Dixie Dynamo,” a nickname coined in a 1962 National Geographic story describing the state’s newly prosperous economy.
“Just look at the talent pool here,” the Hertford County native said in an interview from his Raleigh office. “From 1950, being the second-poorest state in the country, to … Raleigh, now the second-most educated city in America,” Copeland says, a reference to a 2014 Forbes report.
“That’s an astounding change. We’ve done something right along the way. And I’d say education and vision and having some leaders with the ability to see and create the future has been the reason.”
Gov. Roy Cooper tapped Copeland to lead the Commerce Department in January, and his appointment was confirmed by the state legislature in April. He inherits a strong deck of cards, with more than $4.4 billion in investment reported in the state in 2016 and more than 18,000 new jobs announced, according to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina’s annual Community Investment Report. The role of Commerce was diminished upon formation of the EDPNC during Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration. Launched in October 2014, the public-private agency assumed many of the functions previously carried out by Commerce, including aspects of job recruitment and tourism promotion. After the General Assembly in December hobbled Cooper’s ability to make changes to the EDPNC’s 17-member board, the governor asked Copeland to evaluate the state’s $17 million contract with the group. (By statute, the department must maintain regular oversight of and evaluate the EDPNC annually.)
For now, the two groups say they are working together effectively. Copeland says his staff collaborates daily with the EDPNC, including meetings and calls with partnership CEO Christopher Chung and other staff members. But the new structure, along with disruption related to House Bill 2 and proposed changes to the state’s incentives program, created some uncertainty in the state’s strategy regarding business recruitment, he says.
“I think my mission, the governor’s mission, is to work with the legislature to bring some stability to economic development,” Copeland says, “to put us back on the road to expansions and inward investment and jobs.”
Comments were edited for brevity and clarity.
What attracted you to this job?
It’s the best job in North Carolina. You’re working with government, you’re working with public policy, but you’re also working with private business, and you actually get to see the results during the tenure that you’re here. You get to see new businesses open, you see expansions, you see people get jobs. It’s an exhilarating job.
What industries are receiving the most attention?
We’re definitely not going to lose our focus on the biotech and technology industries, and the financial sectors. Many of [those industries] are clustered around the urban areas and the universities. Basically, about 15 counties have 85% of the population.
One of the governor’s focuses, and a big direction of his to me, is on those 85 [other] counties, especially those that are near the bottom and are seeing a lot of economic decline. We have the second largest rural population after Texas. We’re seeing a lot of tax-base loss. We’re seeing population loss, and a major focus is not only on small business but also to have them ready to bring in larger projects. For instance, in Wilson we have Bridgestone — we have over 2,000 people making tires. We should have those types of jobs in much of rural North Carolina.
How do you convince businesses to locate in rural North Carolina?
We have to know what the particular rural area has, what its talent pool looks like, and what we have to do to work with them if they don’t have it to develop it. We have to help them put in the infrastructure that they’re going to need, and it’s not only highways, but [also] natural gas and broadband. Then we have to have the incentives. It has to have all those things. So, we have to look at each of these counties and help basically backfill those deficits.
What other INDUSTRY sectors are gaining momentum?
Look at aviation, in particular. Honda [Aircraft Co.’s] global headquarters is in Greensboro. GE [Aviation] has facilities in Durham and West Jefferson, among others. We have Spirit AeroSystems, which is making the fuselages and the wings for Airbus, employing 800 people in Kinston. So that’s an industry that’s not clearly visible but is having a huge impact, paying substantial salaries and continuing to grow at a fairly fast pace. We have a ready available workforce, much of it coming out of the military. We need to figure out how to access that and bring them back into the private sector.
The auto-parts industry is still huge in this state. … We should be growing the automotive sector, not just in manufacturing automobiles but the automobile parts.
We have quite a number of nonwoven textiles, which is advanced manufacturing, many of them international.
How does Commerce work with the regional development groups and chambers of commerce?
I call it a wraparound strategy. It takes all of us working together to move forward with jobs or opening these sites. The state partners with, for instance, the Golden LEAF Foundation, the power companies and the like. It all wraps around the project and has to work in step, much of the time with Commerce being the lead, [providing] access to the Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Quality, a lot of the infrastructure monies.
Does the governor think the state needs to inject more state funds into the regional partnerships?
Gov. Cooper and I are not concerning ourselves with the structure of economic development in the state right now. We’re focused on moving forward in a cooperative effort to work with the structure that currently exists.
How does Commerce help manufacturers grow exports?
The international trade division assists especially with smaller companies in making connections, for example, with a buyer in an international company. We have offices in Germany, Japan, China, Korea, Hong Kong, Mexico City and Canada. And that’s one of the things we do for export. We also work with the Department of Agriculture in exporting North Carolina farm products.
how will a new CSX facility planned in Edgecombe County impact North Carolina trade?
That is a transformational business to be located in Rocky Mount. It will have a huge impact. I believe it will be up and operational in 2019, but we’re already seeing movement in real estate, warehousing distribution, etc. It could have as much as a 100-mile radius of development that will utilize that transfer hub.
Looking at economic-development programs in Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina, do you see anything that neighboring states are doing that you would like to duplicate or clone?
You know, I’d like to clone any successes they have, but I can’t think of any that are necessarily better than ours. I think the thing that probably gives people that impression is for the last four years we have had a lot of disruptive calamity that has injected itself into economic development in North Carolina. … But I can’t say that I want to be like them. I think we’re better.
What do you mean by “disruptive calamity?”
The Department of Commerce was completely dismantled when the EDPNC was formed. There was much uncertainty with our incentives programs. Those are just some of the many challenges the economic-development landscape has faced in the past four years. We’re recovering from HB2 and still rebounding from the Great Recession. Instead of focusing on the structure of economic development, Gov. Cooper and I are focused on providing strong leadership and stability in attracting and recruiting companies to locate and expand in North Carolina. That’s what will bring new jobs and new investment to the state and ultimately put more money in the pockets of North Carolinians.