Friday, April 19, 2024

Up front: Northern exposure

As travelers to other states and nations repeatedly attest, saying “I’m from North Carolina” is a surefire way to draw raised eyebrows and questions about our state’s culture wars. I learned that firsthand when I joined a group of journalists who spent a week in March visiting economic-development officials and technology-company owners in Canada. At least a half dozen people — not including my writer friends — asked why North Carolina is so worked up over bathroom politics.

I long ago stopped worrying about outdated negative perceptions of the South held by anyone living north of Richmond. There are fools and saints in every precinct. IBM, GlaxoSmithKline and others made clear decades ago that North Carolina is a world-class business center.

Our state’s growth offers much to boast about. North Carolina regularly tops “best of” lists when compared with its U.S. peers. Real-estate leasing giant CBRE ranked Raleigh-Durham eighth on its 2016 ranking of best North American markets for attracting “tech talent.” Keeping that edge requires more vision than cutting taxes and waiting for a big automaker to establish a plant.

Learning about Canada’s development strategies — a coordinated focus on higher education and targeting artificial intelligence, film-industry special effects, financial technology, video gaming and other high-growth sectors — made me want to give a supportive hug to North Carolina’s industry hunters. Their jobs are more difficult as influential business owners and innovators question why our state isn’t more welcoming to all sorts of people. The compromise over HB2, while satisfying the sports folks, is more of a delaying tactic than a solution.

Just as North Carolina’s small towns endure a brain drain to bigger markets, Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle are in a war for talent with regions reaching out to creative, fast-growth industries run by creative, diverse leaders. Can Charlotte or Durham or Winston-Salem attract top software developers, medical-device makers and visionary job creators when other areas appear to be more in tune with the mores of 20- and 30-somethings? The obvious answer is yes: The statistics on job growth in Charlotte and the Triangle are impressive.

But the work gets tougher when bogged down on bathrooms and, just as important, national issues such as health insurance and immigration. Canada years ago mostly resolved controversies over LGBT issues and universal access to health care, both critical factors for many business owners, says Ian McKay, CEO of the Vancouver Economic Commission.

Canada is opening its doors to immigrants at a faster, more targeted pace that focuses on newcomers with specific job and language skills, says Duke University professor  Stephen Kelly, a former top U.S. Department of State diplomat in Ottawa and Quebec City. With one-tenth the population of the U.S., Canada is among earth’s emptiest spots, so there’s plenty of room. But it’s also about attitude: It’s hard to imagine our leaders welcoming Syrian immigrants at an airport, as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did.

Americans rarely pay attention to Canada, which supplies 45% of our oil. Perhaps we should, amid so much turmoil and fear here.

“Canadians are enjoying a moment now, mostly because there is more of a unity of purpose there than in the U.S.,” Kelly says. “They are wondering, what in the heck are you doing down there?”

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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