Saturday, June 25, 2022

Don’t panic: We still have biscuits

The other day, I drove down to the Bojangles’ at the bottom of the hill and got an egg-and-cheese biscuit and some tea. The biscuit was hot and the tea was cold. The caffeine and the fat and the sugar created a pleasant samba in my brain that made it easier for me to push the dietary buzzkill of my last physical to the back of my mind, where — quite frankly — it belonged. Instead, I thought about how Bojangles’ recent initial public offering burst out of the trading gate and about all the people getting wealthy. It proved that fat and happy do go together, and when I was finished with my biscuit, wondering what the profit margin was on the delicious side of Bo-tato Rounds I ordered for the road, I was no longer upset that North Carolina had once again failed to land an auto factory.

This time it was Volvo, announcing plans for an assembly factory near Charleston, S.C., and the hand-wringing and finger-pointing about what might have been is by turns funny, strange and instructive.

I am old enough to remember a time when Volvo was less a car or even a prized economic windfall. Instead, it was basically part of a compound adjective, attached by a hyphen to the word “driving” and often preceding the word “liberal.” Times have changed. A recession will do that. A Chinese billionaire now controls the Swedish company, and the boxy, slightly socialist Volvo wagon of my once carefree, younger self is all but gone. It’s like a Woodstock poster: merely a harmless reminder of days that have long past.

Volvo’s rejection follows a familiar pattern, one that’s been going on for more than two decades. First BMW picked Greer, S.C., over North Carolina in 1992. A year later, Mercedes-Benz picked Tuscaloosa, Ala. Earlier this year, the German automaker picked Atlanta over North Carolina as the home for its new North American headquarters, then chose the Charleston, S.C., area as the site of a new van plant. There are Toyota and Nissan plants in Mississippi. Kia is in Georgia.

Take it from somebody who knows a thing or two about getting turned down. Rejection hurts. You can wash down the pain with some tea and keep Bojangles’ share price moving north. But the truth is, you can only drink so much of the stuff before your teeth start hurting. At some point, you have to take stock and either accept rejection as a fact of life or start making some changes in how you operate. When it comes down to the hunt for an automaker, North Carolina is in that awkward middle, half in and half out. We make a play. We get rejected. Then we say, “It’s OK, we didn’t really want it, and those other folks paid too much.” Repeat as needed.

So, my funk wasn’t really about not getting an auto plant. Instead, it was about something more basic. As a state, we still haven’t decided whether we really want one of these beasts. I don’t mean at the flaky margins of left and right, where conspiracies and chemtrails paint the sky, but in the great middle, which these days — at least from a governing perspective — means the Republican Party. The purists say no. The realists say yes. The rest of us say, “Please make up your mind and let us know what you decide.”

There’s a chance that by the time you read this, the N.C. General Assembly will have approved an incentives package that gives eco- nomic developers more resources in the recruitment business. Not a blank check, certainly, but probably enough to keep our governor from whining too openly about how Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and other members of his own party dropped the ball.

The reality is that for North Carolina to get an auto plant, we’re going to have to spend a large amount of money. Volvo’s incentives will cost South Carolina in excess of $200 million. But there’s more than just opening up our collective wallet. We’re also going to have to grovel. Despite North Carolina being founded upon a conceit of humility, we are a state that hates — I mean, just hates — to grovel. Our neighbors south of the border have learned the whole supplication game much better, especially since Nikki Haley became governor in 2010, and it’s paid off, at least for Boeing and Volvo. I’m not one of those people who lie awake at night either a) thinking that we need to become more like South Carolina or b) worrying that we’re becoming more like South Carolina. But both camps exist, and in their palmettophilic or palmettophobic hysteria, they miss the essential point. The reason they grovel better in South Carolina is simple: They need to. Unemployment is higher there. Household income is lower, and it has declined at a faster clip in recent years. By many measures, their university system isn’t as good. They only boast one Fortune 500 company — Domtar Corp. North Carolina had 14, though Matthews-based Family Dollar Stores and Cary-based The Pantry are being lost through mergers. The list goes on. I have no desire to fight, but when it comes to whatever competition exists between the two Carolinas, I’m reminded of the words on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which are these: Don’t Panic.

So, yeah, we didn’t get Volvo, but in the long run, I’m betting on the state where my biscuits get made.

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Ken Otterbourg
Ken Otterbourg is a writer who lives in Winston-Salem.

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